Exploring Radiometric Dating with Dice

Carla Whittington derived from Baer (1999)


This is a lab where students use dice to simulate radioactive decay. The use of dice has some advantages to other similar exercises, because the half-life is not immediately obvious to students, and they will need to experimentally determine it.

Students create a standard decay curve for a fictional element (Cascadium), calculate the half-life of this element, and, using the information their graph, "date" rocks that contain the new element.

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Learning Goals

At the end of this activity, students should:
  • Have practiced generating, collecting, graphing and analyzing data
  • Understand relevant terminology such as half-life, parent, daughter, isotope
  • Be able to make simple calculations to determine the age of a rock
  • See some errors in data they collected and correct for them

Context for Use

This is used in an introductory level geoscience class where a minimum of mathematical skills are required. It takes about an hour, and can be completed individually or in small groups. It does not need much supervision, so it could be used in a large class.

You will need:
  • 50 dice per student or group
  • a container to keep them in
  • graph paper

Description and Teaching Materials

The instructions for the students (Microsoft Word 26kB Feb16 05) is a word file that gives step-by-step student instructions
Data Table (Microsoft Word 56kB Feb16 05) is the data table students will need to fill out to complete the exercise
Student questions (Microsoft Word 26kB Feb16 05) is the list of questions we ask students to get them to analyze the data they have generated.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The dice rolling itself takes only 20 minutes, the graphing another 15 minutes and the questions another 20 or so (but this last part is the most variable). Only the dice rolling need be done in-class - I assign the questions as homework.


I use traditional assessment on the submitted work.