Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

Demonstrating Energy Levels of Atoms

Posted on: September 29, 2010


I came up with this in my early years of teaching (2002) and I forgot about it until tonight.  At the time, I was borrowing a friend’s physics classroom to do a graduate assignment on reading.  I prepared an article on how fireworks produce light and color.  The concept I was trying to get across was how electrons in the shell jump to a higher energy level, then give off light as they drop down to a ground state.

I chose as a prop a Zippo lighter without fuel, but in the little basket on top I placed some magician’s flash cotton.  This stuff is great, you can purchase it at a local magic shop.  It is stored wet so that it doesn’t ignite, you take out only as much as you think you will need ahead of time and let it air dry.

I used one of the students in the class, he was the electron.  The idea was that as he got heated up by the thermal energy, he got elevated into an excited state.  He then had to stand on one of the desk chairs to show the elevated state.  Now the problem was that he needed to get down, but he couldn’t without releasing some energy.  To do that, he had to flick the Zippo and step down.  As he flicked the Zippo, there was an impressive flash of light – the photon being release from the electron in a high state.

I know this worked, I heard a bunch of involuntary utterances of “I get it” and “ooh.”  I think that was the day I knew I belonged in the classroom.

Fire – good.

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2 Responses to "Demonstrating Energy Levels of Atoms"

I love this idea and have never thought about it like that. I am always looking for ideas that I can come up with or use in the classroom since the first year teaching is always the toughest, especially if you are constantly looking for worksheets and reinforcement activities since we are generally starting out with nothing more than a textbook. If anyone has any resources for physical science, chemistry, or physics I would love to have the help.

Hi Karen,

I’m currently developing a site for animated physics applets to show in the classroom (Phy.si). Please check it out and let me know what you think!

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