Deal Me In: Using Playing Cards to Model the Periodic Table of Elements

By King, Kenneth | Science Scope, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Deal Me In: Using Playing Cards to Model the Periodic Table of Elements


King, Kenneth, Science Scope


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Unfortunately, the terms "resource deprived" and "science teacher" are too often paired. Gaining access to inexpensive materials to teach with serves both teachers and students well, and simple materials do not necessarily produce simple lessons. In the science activity described here, playing cards serve as a tool to develop important habits of mind in learning science.

The lesson, designed for use in the middle school classroom, applies reasoning to look for patterns that are represented by playing cards, which serve as a proxy for science content and are used to better develop understanding of science processes.

Background

Human beings have always sought to impose order on nature in an effort to understand it better. The classical elements of Earth, air, fire, and water are among the better-known early attempts to break the observable world down into its constituent parts. From the 400s CE through the 1400s, the alchemists collectively sought to better understand the physical world, explaining the world in terms of the classical elements of Earth, air, fire, and water. The alchemists sought to apply this explanation to the organization of matter. These proto-scientists functioned in a role that anticipated some of the practices of later scientists, learning that substances could be broken down into smaller parts, as well as combined into new substances. In their vain pursuit of the philosopher's stone (a mythical substance that would turn ordinary items into gold), the alchemists developed laboratory apparatuses and laboratory methods still in use today.

Antoine Lavoisier (1743-94) is often regarded as the founder of modern chemistry. He was the first to correctly describe the process of combustion and demonstrated the conservation of matter. He was, unfortunately, guillotined during the excesses of the French Revolution.

Adding further rigor and understanding to the study of chemistry, Lavosier developed the law of definite composition, which helped move chemistry firmly and finally away from the influence of the alchemists. This law explains that substances such as gases and simple compounds always exist in certain combinations and in certain relative combinations of weight.

By the 1800s, John Dalton had proposed a simple model to explain observations that had been made up to that time. Dalton's explanation of atomic theory revived the term atom, which had been suggested by the Greek philosopher Democritus, emphasizing the belief that matter is composed of tiny, unbreakable units called atoms. Stated in modern terms by Pilar (1979, p. 10), Dalton's atomic theory reads as follows:

1. Elements consist of tiny, indivisible particles called atoms, which, for a given element, are alike in size, form, and mass. In general, size, form, and mass differ from element to element.

2. Atoms are immutable; that is, atoms of one element never change into atoms of another element.

3. Compounds are unions of two or more elements. The unit containing the smallest number of atoms whose union constitutes a compound is called a molecule.

4. Atoms combine in simple whole-number ratios.

Based on Dalton's work, the quest to seek and explain order for Dalton's atomic model commenced. Looking for and recognizing a pattern in the occurrence of atoms is at the heart of the work that Dmitri Mendeleev produced. The scientific beauty of the periodic table has largely to do with the patterns evident in the elements and their relationship to one another. Mendeleev observed and documented in the 1860s a periodicity in the elements known at that time. By arranging the elements in a grid, he was able to identify similarities among them. In some cases, the spaces on the grid he produced were left blank because they could not be filled in by a known substance. Mendeleev hypothesized that the elements that would fill the blank spaces had not yet been discovered. …

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