Quantitative Skills > Teaching Resources > Activities > Using Melting Ice to Teach Radiometric Decay

Using Melting Ice to Teach Radiometric Dating

Developed by Donald Wise, Franklin and Marshall College. Taken from Wise, 1990 .

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Feb 25, 2006


Students are challenged to a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery in which they construct their own decay curves of melting ice to determine time-zero. In the process, the analogies to radiometric dating and some elementary thermodynamics can be discussed.

Learning Goals

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for use in an introductory geology course as a means to discuss the issues of radiometric dating and geologic time.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching Materials

The setup for the activity involves these materials:

The author's original article has suggestions for a storyline to go along with the activity.


When students have finished plotting their data, they should check their answer for time-zero against the answer provided by the instructor. Student participation is the aim of this exercise.

References and Resources

Wise, 1990 , Using Melting Ice to Teach Radiometric Dating. Journal of Geological Education, 38(1), p. 38-40,69.

Quantiative Skills Addressed

Interpretation of graphical information, Estimation

Geoscience Topics Covered

Time/Earth History

Contact the Author


Controlled Vocabulary Terms

Subject: Geoscience:Geology:Geochemistry:Radioisotopes, Geoscience:Geology:Historical Geology
Resource Type: Activities:Lab Activity, Classroom Activity:Short Activity:Demonstration
Special Interest: Quantitative
Grade Level: College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level
Quantitative Skills: Logarithms/Exponential Functions:Exponential Growth and Decay, Graphs, Estimation
Ready for Use: Ready to Use
Earth System Topics: Time/Earth History, Solid Earth:Earth Materials
Topics: Time/Earth History
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Geochemistry

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