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Animation Activity: Building Blocks of Matter Mark as Favorite (8 Favorites)

ACTIVITY in Atoms, Model of the Atom, Atomic Theory. Last updated December 12, 2023.


In this activity, students will view an animation that explores the idea that everything is made of atoms, and that since atoms are so extremely small, even small objects contain vast numbers of atoms. They will see several examples to illustrate this point. Then they will be given a brief overview of the evolution of how people thought about atoms from the ancient Greeks through Dalton.

Grade Level

Middle School, High School


By the end of this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify that all matter is made of one or more of the 118 types of atoms listed on the periodic table.
  • Begin to understand how small atoms are, and how many of them are in even small objects.
  • Explain some of the ways different people have thought about matter throughout history.

Chemistry Topics

This activity supports students’ understanding of:

  • Matter
  • Atoms
  • Atomic scale
  • History of the atom


Teacher Preparation: minimal
Lesson: 10-30 minutes



  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Teacher Notes

  • All of the animations that make up the AACT Animation collection are designed for teachers to incorporate into their classroom lessons. Intentionally, these animations do not have any spoken explanations so that a teacher can speak while the animation is playing and stop the animation as needed to instruct.
  • If you assign this to students outside of class time, you can create a Student Pass that will allow students to view the animation (or any other video or ChemMatters article on the AACT website).
  • We suggest that a teacher pause this animation at several points, including when questions are posed before the answers are revealed, or watch it more than once to give students the opportunity to make notes, ask questions, and test their understanding of the concepts presented. The student activity sheet can help activate students’ prior knowledge, guide them through the animation, and provide a chance for after-viewing reflection and optional extension questions.
  • This animation was designed primarily with a middle school audience in mind, but it could also be used in an introductory high school chemistry course. It does not address ideas in modern atomic theory beyond Dalton’s “Billiard Ball Model” from the early 1800s (so no subatomic particles are mentioned), but it could be used to introduce a unit on atomic theory. With this in mind, more advanced ideas such as dark matter and dark energy are not addressed when discussing the makeup of the universe.
  • If you have already taught about measurements and unit conversions and wanted to practice some conversions, you could have students verify the calculations used to arrive at the numbers given in the animation (the atoms in a drop of water, the size of a penny if atoms were tennis ball-sized) with the extension questions. Students will likely need to look up some of the conversion factors if they don’t know them off-hand. See the answer key for sample calculations.
    • To dig deeper into scale, there is a really cool resource, developed by high school students, called The Scale of the Universe, which allows you to zoom in and out to the smallest and biggest things in the universe – all the way into a string theory string and all the way out to the entire observable universe itself! It includes measurements and informational blurbs on objects at various size levels. My students have loved exploring it. It is also available as an iOS app.
  • The “four elements” (fire, air, earth, and water) theory of matter stuck around for quite a while before the idea of tiny particles became more widely accepted. Famous philosopher Aristotle was a believer of the four elements theory. As he was perhaps one of the original “influencers,” his views influenced a lot of other people. You could use this to draw a social studies connection and discuss the role influential public figures can play in science, for better or worse, using the last extension question, or something similar.
    • It is important to note that Greek philosophers were not experimentalists – they thought a lot about their natural world but did not often use the scientific method to test their ideas out. You could discuss the important role of the scientific method, repeating/verifying experiments, and peer review in the modern scientific process.
  • Be sure that your students understand the difference between the ancient Greek notion of “atoms” and the modern understanding. While both propose that atoms are indivisible, we now know that atoms are not unique to each type of substance (ex: there are no “stone atoms”) instead there are 118 elements that combine in different ways to create all the different substances. (So in this sense, the Greek concept of atoms might be likened to the modern-day molecule – the smallest unit of something that retains that substance’s properties. It can be broken apart further into its component atoms, but not without changing the substance.)
  • The image used for carbon dioxide is dry ice – students may be more familiar with carbon dioxide as an invisible gas, so seeing carbon dioxide in this form might need some explaining.
  • There are now 118 elements on the periodic table – we do not distinguish between naturally occurring and synthetic elements. However, if you wish to discuss this with students, you can talk about the first 92 elements occur naturally (except technetium, #43!) and elements after atomic number 92 are produced in laboratories (although a few were found in very, very small quantities in nature after being synthesized).
  • Classroom resources from the AACT Library that may be used to further teach this topic include:

For the Student


As you view the animation, answer the questions below.

  1. How many atoms are in a single drop of water?
  2. How many years would it take if you counted the atoms in a single drop of water at a rate of 1,000,000 per second?
  3. About how many atoms are in a single cell?
  4. If every atom in a penny were the size of a tennis ball, what would the diameter of that penny be? What would its thickness be?
  5. What were two early ideas about matter suggested by the ancient Greeks?
  6. How do we think about matter now?
  7. How many different kinds of atoms have been discovered?
  8. True or False: Water is one of the elements on the periodic table.
  9. How many atoms are in a paperclip?
    1. Exactly 7
    2. About a thousand
    3. More than a billion
  1. True or False: All matter is made up of one or more of the 118 types of atoms listed on the periodic table.


  1. The animation included some really big numbers of atoms! Can you verify some of them with your own calculations? (A starting point is provided below, but you may need to research some conversion factors on your own.)
    1. The animation claimed that there are 5 sextillion, or 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (5 x 1021) atoms in a single drop of water. Assume there are 20 drops of water in one milliliter. Show calculations going from 1 drop of water to atoms. (Hint: How can you go from milliliters to numbers of atoms? How many atoms are in one molecule of water?)
    2. The animation claimed that if the atoms in a penny were the size of tennis balls, the penny would cover the distance between New York and Dublin, Ireland, or about 4900 km. Assume that the atoms in a penny are about 2.6 x 10–10 m in diameter, and 1 atom = 1 tennis ball. Show calculations going from 1 penny to kilometers. (Hint: How big is a penny? A tennis ball?)
  1. Research a historical non-scientist public figure (think artists, authors, religious leaders, politicians, activists, etc.) who influenced the trajectory of science in the 20th century. What was this public figure known for? What did they do or say that impacted the scientific community? Do you think they made a positive or negative change in society? Cite all sources appropriately.