The Particles of Matter

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SWBAT explain how matter is made up of small particles.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students watch a video, create a poster model, and complete research to explain how matter is made up of small particles.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will begin by exploring the properties of matter. Then, the class will investigate the mass of matter before and after physical and chemical changes by conducting investigations and constructing graphs. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by watching a video on atoms and defining key vocabulary words. Students then explore atoms, molecules, and elements by taking notes during a class discussion and the creation of a class poster. At the end of the lesson, students build upon their new understanding of atoms, molecules, and elements by completing their own research. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-PS1-1. Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to be seen.  (lessons 3 & 4)

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 8: Students obtain, evaluate, and communicate information by participating in class discussion and reading complex texts.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 6: Structure and Function 

Students learn about the structure of matter, atoms, and molecules. For example, all matter is made up of atoms and all atoms are made of protons, electrons, and neutrons. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS1.A:  Structure and Properties of Matter

Matter of any type can be subdivided into particles that are too small to see, but even then the matter still exists and can be detected by other means. A model showing that gases are made from matter particles that are too small § to see and are moving freely around in space can explain many observations, including the inflation and shape of a balloon and the effects of air on larger particles or objects. (5-PS1-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources to locate key information on atoms, molecules, and elements. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  



10 minutes

Teacher Note: The following lesson can be taught in two 60 minute science periods or it can be taught during an afternoon time slot.

Matter Unit Lapbooks

To provide students with a method to keep track of their research and thinking during our unit on matter, I followed these steps to create lapbooks for each student. 

1. I folded each side of a file folder inward to create a booklet that opens from the center: File Folder.

2. Next, I made copies of Lapbook Templates on colored paper (purple, yellow, green, and orange). I made sure to have enough copies so that each student would have 4 graphs, 6 research notes, 8 investigations, 18 vocabulary words (9 sets of 2 words), and the 4 pictures.  I also copied the Other Research Pocket onto blue card stock paper so that students would have a place to put loose papers. 

3. Then, I stapled the templates into each lapbook: Inside the Lapbook.

4. Before starting our unit on matter, I asked students to help personalize their lapbooks. Students used a glue stick and tape to secure the blue research pockets on the back (Student Research Pocket Example). Then, they decorated the cover: 


Creating these lapbooks helps build excitement and student ownership!



I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show the first part of the following Bill Nye Video clip, until 4:05. (My students love Bill Nye!) This part of the video helps students better understand that matter is made up of particles too small to be seen (5-PS1-1). Students enjoy watching Bill Nye cut a block of cheese over and over to achieve a "piece too small to cut." He explains that atom is a Greek word that means "uncuttable." 

To help students understand how atoms combine to make molecules, we continue watching the above video clip from 9:00 to 12:25. Here, Bill Nye demonstrates how water can be separated into hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. 


If I want students to use scientific language within class discussions and student explanations, I have found that incorporating key words and kid-friendly definitions is essential.

I ask the class to use their computers and dictionaries look up and share definitions for atom, molecule, and element, one word at a time. Then, as a group, we collectively decide on a definition to write in the vocabulary section of student lapbooks. Here are a few student examples: 


50 minutes


For today's lesson, I want to create a Matter Poster together as a class. This poster (along with the pictures) will hang on the wall for the rest of our Matter Unit. This way, students can reference the poster for key information.

After creating the poster today, students will apply their understanding of the components of matter to gather further research on atoms, molecules, and elements. It is particularly important to provide students with background knowledge on this topic before researching this topic as the idea that "all things are made up of particles too small to be seen" is quite abstract. Modeling and building schema, through the use of videos, demonstrations, class posters, diagrams, is particularly important. 

Teacher Note: The section of the lesson is quite in-depth. The key to active engagement for the full 50 minutes is making sure all students are actively engaged: making their own "poster," participating in the class discussion, and turning & talking frequently (Share what you have just learned about.... Compare an atom to a molecule... Tell someone next to you what you are wondering...).

Getting Ready

Prior to this lesson, I draw an Atom & Molecules on a large piece of bulletin board paper by projecting the following images and sketching around them.

Oxygen Atom


Water Molecule


By drawing these ahead of time, students are immediately curious about the poster. Also, this will save time as I won't have to draw them in front of the class. Some teachers will lightly sketch diagrams such as these with pencil. Then, they'll go over the sketches with marker in front of the students. I like to save instructional time whenever possible! 

Before this lesson, I also print and cut out the following pictures (Matter Pictures). These pictures and diagrams will help support student understanding of matter.

Class Poster on Matter

For this part of the lesson, I will create the following poster (Matter Poster) in front of class while students take their own notes on a blank sheet of white paper. Some students fit all of their notes on one side of the paper while others use the front and back:


Review: Definition of Matter

I begin by writing "Matter" in the center of the poster. We review the definition, "anything that takes up space and has mass." Even though we've discussed the meaning of matter before, it's important to continually reinforce concepts throughout a unit to ensure mastery. We then discuss the meaning of  "takes up space." As scientists and mathematicians, we measure the amount of space that an object or substance takes up by measuring the volume. Volume can be measured two ways: length x width x height (students are already familiar with this concept) and using water displacement. We draw a picture of water displacement on the poster. Then, there's mass. Turn and talk: How do we measure mass? (using a balance scale, measuring the number of grams or kilograms)

Review: 3 Main Types of Matter

Next, we review the 3 Main Types of Matter. One at a time, we discuss, take notes, and add pictures (bricks, water, and balloons) of each type of matter.

  • Solid: The particles are packed together. We know that even though they are packed together, they are still vibrating and moving slowly. Solids have their own shape. 
  • Liquid: The particles flow freely and are abel to move around quicker than a solid. Liquid matter takes on the shape of a container. 
  • Gas:The particles in a gas are moving the fastest. A gas spreads out to fill ANY space available. 


Next, I add the following pictures and we discuss how the molecules in solids are "very attracted to each other," the molecules in water are "less attracted to each other," and they molecules in gases have "very little attraction to each other." 

Review: Properties of Matter

We then review the Properties of Matter. I ask students to turn and talk: What are properties? (Properties are used to describe and identify matter. There are two types of properties: physical and chemical properties.) 

  • Physical Properties: Examples include color, length,mass, and volume. Physical properties are measured and observed without changing the matter.
  • Chemical Properties: An example includes vinegar and baking soda. These substances have the ability to react or combine with each other to create a new substance. 

Matter in Motion

Next, we discuss how Matter is Always in Motion. This is because matter is made of tiny particles. Even though we can't see these particles, we know that they are there. These particles include atoms and molecules. More specifically, all matter on Earth is made up of the elements in the periodic table. I add the following picture to our poster: 

Atoms, Molecules, & the Periodic Table

Finally, we discuss Atoms, Moledules, & Periodic Table

  • Atoms: These are the building blocks of all matter. Examples include the oxygen atom and the hydrogen atom. In fact, each element in the periodic table represent a different kind of atom. Atoms are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons. The oxygen atom has 8 electrons on the outside of the atom (I color and label these orange), 8 protons (I color & label these green), and a certain number of neutrons (I color and label these blue). While the number of protons and electrons are always the same, the number of neutrons can vary. Different combinations of protons, electrons, and neutrons make different elements. Referring to the periodic table, I explain: For example, if an atom has one proton and electron, it is called a hydrogen atom. However, if an atom has one more proton and electron, it is called a helium atom. 
  • Periodic Table: There are 118 known elements on Earth and 92 of these elements are natural. I share some familiar examples: H (hydrogen), Fe (iron), and O (oxygen). All elements have a very special number called the atomic number. I add the picture below. The atomic number tells us how many protons and electrons each atom has. For example, the hydrogen atom has 1 proton and 1 electron. 

  • Molecules: Here's what's really interesting about atoms! They don't like to travel alone! Instead, they are almost always found linked together with other atoms. Two or more atoms "bonded" together are called molecules. Some molecules are made up of one type of atom. Two oxygen atoms make dioxygen and three oxygen atoms make ozone molecules. When there are more than one type of atom bonded together, we call this a compound molecule. The perfect example of a compound molecule is the water molecule, H20. Water is made up of two elements (atoms): 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom make up a single water molecule. Turn and talk: What's the difference between an atom and a molecule? (Atoms are the building blocks of all matter. Molecules are made up of two or more atoms bonded together). 


The Human Body

To help make all of this information more relevant to students, I connect this learning to the Human Body. What is the human body made of? Students recall from previous lessons... "Water!" You're right. Depending on your age, the human body is made up of about 60% water. What is water made of? (hydrogen & oxygen atoms) I add the picture below to our poster and discuss: The human body is made entirely of elements. Students can't wait to hear which ones! We write down the top four elements in the human body (65% oxygen, 18.5% carbon, 9.5% hydrogen, 3.2% nitrogen) and I name the others verbally. The class is surprised to hear that some elements, such chlorine (same as bleach) and copper (a metal) are present in human body. 


Image Sources:

Reflect & Apply

60 minutes

Continued Research

Now that students have built meaning and understanding through note-taking and discussion, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to use this knowledge to continue researching atoms, molecules, and elements on their own. For this reason, I invite students to take notes on a research template in their lapbooks. I show students how to divide their notes up into three sections (one for atoms, one for molecules, and one for elements): Divided Research Notes

Shared Sources

To ensure that students use sources that are worthwhile and to make the most of student learning time, I share the following sources. I ask students to work with their elbow partners to read and take notes. At this time, I invite one student from each group to get their computers. When students share computers during the research process, I find that collaboration amongst students increases. 


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

  1. What have you found so far? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. Has your thinking changed? 
  4. What evidence do you have? 
  5. How did you decide _____?
  6. What conclusion can you draw about ____?

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work at this time: 


Picture Captions

As students finish taking notes, I ask them to use their research to write captions for two of their pictures in their lapbooks, the atom and the periodic table: 


Class Discussion

Following this activity, I invite students to share some of their research findings: Discussing Research. I love watching the students make sense of these complicated ideas by adding on to other's thoughts or respectfully disagreeing. Both are signs of active listening and an environment in which students feel comfortable taking risks.