Rutherford's enlarged: A content-embedded activity to teach about nature of science

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: June 7, 2009


This activity can be used to help middle and secondary school students develop more informed understandings of some important aspects of nature of science in the context of teaching them about Rutherford's experiments and atomic structure.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

  • Atomic structure.
  • Observation, inference, models, experiments.

Context for Use

This activity is of the black box variety. It could be used to introduce middle and secondary students to atomic structure and help them develop understandings of some important aspects of NOS.

Description and Teaching Materials

Instructions and materials needed to make the black box are included in the file provided below.

Once the box is constructed, the instructor tasks students with determining the shape of the object hidden in the box. The method of collecting data to answer the challenge used here is to shoot ping pong balls at the box in a grid pattern to see if the balls are able to pass through or if they are deflected a certain way. Students gather data from the ping pong ball shots and are able to share this with classmates to infer the shape of the mystery object. Once all the data is collected, the instructor may provide students with overhead transparencies to show the class the shape they inferred the object to be and to tell why, based on their data, they inferred such a shape.

Further details and instructions can be found in the attached document.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Allowing students to work in groups helps facilitate discussion and creative idea exchange among students and as such, should be encouraged.


This activity is designed to show students that scientific observations are oftentimes inferred rather than observed, and that while still credible, these inferences allow for a less "absolute" view (only one absolute and correct answer) of scientific findings. It should also show students that science can be fun and that creativity is useful in answering scientific questions.

References and Resources

Rutherford's Enlarged Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 82kB Jun7 09)