Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

First models of the atom

As students start experiments on ionisation, they will have a fairly basic model of atoms and molecules - as portrayed by the simple kinetic theory. They will know that solids, liquids and gases are made up of atoms and molecules. They may think of these as round blobs with no internal structure. These particles exert attractions on each other at short ranges of approach and, necessarily, repulsions at very short range. They bounce off each other in elastic collisions (kinetic energy is always conserved) – more advanced students may understand that this is because the forces are the same on the way in as they are on the way out. 
They will have heard of ions – probably in the context of chemical reactions, solutions and electrical conductivity. However, using ions to explain sparks may be a new idea. Ionisation and sparks show that electrons are easily knocked off neutral atoms and molecules. In these collisions, kinetic energy is not conserved – some of it is lost to remove the electrons. So the collisions are inelastic. This shows that the energies needed to remove electrons are of the order of the kinetic energy of a very fast moving particle (a few 100 m/s). 
Their picture of the atom will develop. They will learn that it contains electrons, which are fairly easily detached. There must also be some positive material, probably holding most of the mass of the atom. The atom is held together in some unknown way.