Center for the Advancement of Mathematics and Science Education

- A South Dakota Board of Regents Center of Excellence

Inquiry into Radioactivity - Radiation Literacy for Everyone

Can non-science-oriented students develop meaningful understandings of radioactivity via inquiry? Yes!

The IiR Materials

The Inquiry into Radioactivity (IiR) project is developing and disseminating course materials for students in survey level college physics courses and high school courses to understand ionizing radiation, its effects on health, and the connection to nuclear power. This project is supported by the National Science Foundation under TUES grant DUE 0942699. The purposes of the IiR project are to promote radiation literacy, to provide physics educators with a low-stakes (and fun!) opportunity to try out inquiry teaching, and to make available a wide range of useful tools that faculty can adapt for their own use.

These research-based materials - a full semester of inquiry instruction - address general properties of ionizing radiation, interaction of radiation with matter (including health effects), the origins of radiation and nuclear waste. The materials address numerous student difficulties that have been identified through repeated classroom trials and classroom research.

The materials are being developed by Dr. Andy Johnson of CAMSE at Black Hills State University with crucial help from student assistants, notably Charlotte Walling and Anna Hafele. The files in the Downloads section to the right are the latest versions. They are free - look them over and try them out!

Plenty of guidance is provided for Cycles 1, 2, and 3 including extensive teacher guides. Teacher guides for Cycle 4 are in the works. If you download these materials, please begin by reading "A Read Me First". There are a few other supporting documents - an overview and a list or the extensive list of sources for equipment.

Simulators and strategies

The IiR project has identified significant problems with numerous conceptual issues about radiation. To address these, the project has developed three pedagogical simulators that extend students' abilities to observe (and interpret) atom-scale phenomena. In addition, we offer specific strategies for helping students move past difficulties and develop new ideas. These strategies are built into the course materials and are described in the teacher guides.

Non-science majors often come to class with very limited understandings of atoms. They often do not correctly remember the basic planetary model and they are not prepared to use atoms in reasoning. The Atom Builder simulator allows students to build any atom up to element 105 (Dubnium) and observe their atom's behaviors. Ionization is carefully isolated from radioactivity until students are clear on what an ion is and isn't. With the special access code students can then test unstable atoms.

Students need to think about how radiation interacts with matter. Using the Atom Invaders simulator students shoot radiation at individual atoms or diatomic molecules and observe the results. This simulator also enables a very basic investigation of how ionization energy varies for each electron removed from the atom.

Connecting atomic scale phenomena with the cellular or macroscopic scales is a tough task for anyone, particularly those who are doing it for the first time. The Tracks simulator supports students in observing and making sense of the similarities and differences in alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, and enables storytelling about the effects of radiation at different size scales. Understanding the size scales of different objects is also supported by an online zooming site.

Research on student learning
What the classroom looks like
Topics taught in IiR

Creative Commons License Copyright Creative Commons BY, NC, SA by Andy Johnson
Note: Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Related Links


  • The full set of Radioactivity Materials including simulators. (Summer 2014 version)
  • Getting Started
    The basics about the materials
  • Cycle 1
    Introduction to radiation New version 1/14/15
  • Cycle 2
    Atoms and the source of radiation New version 3/27/15
  • Cycle 3
    Interaction of radiation with matter and health effects
  • Cycle 4
    Fission, half lives, and nuclear waste
  • Student
    version only, for installing on classroom computers. (Summer 2014 version)
  • Informative Supplementary Materials
    on Science/AAAS website


  • Atom Builder (atomic structure, ions vs isotopes, etc.)
  • Atom Invaders (ionization and neutron activation)
  • Tracks simulator (interaction of radiation with matter at different size scales)
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