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Landmark Lesson Plan: Radiocarbon Dating and Willard Libby

Grades: 9-12
Subject areas: Chemistry and history
Principal author: Susan Cooper

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school chemistry lesson planning, but they apply to all science subjects. Some middle school teachers may also find the lesson outline helpful if students have some understanding of nuclear chemistry, including half-life. The lesson plan will help students understand how we know the age of artifacts containing carbon. The final activity integrates writing as students are asked to summarize what they have learned about radiocarbon dating.

The content is designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by teachers or their substitutes, to supplement a unit of study. Students will practice critical reading and writing skills as they develop a deeper understanding of the carbon cycle and radiocarbon dating.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “The Periodic Table and Transuranium Elements”
  • Student activities: Include the six activities described below.

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • Anticipation Guide and Reading Students confront their ideas about radiocarbon dating. (5 minute introduction, followed by 15-20 minutes of reading)
  • History: Timeline of Events Students chronologically order events mentioned in the reading. (5-10 minutes)
  • Graphic Organizer (or Card Sort): What can be dated using radiocarbon dating? and Graphic Organizer: Uses for Radiocarbon Dating Students sort artifacts into those that can and can’t be dated using radiocarbon dating methods, then they identify how different kinds of scientists might use radiocarbon dating. (10-15 minutes)
  • Nuclear Equations and Writing: Let’s Summarize! Students write nuclear equations for the formation and decay of 14C, and summarize the challenges Libby faced in demonstrating that his idea for radiocarbon dating worked. (15-20 minutes)
  • Optional Jigsaw Summaries After reading the article, students work in groups on one of the suggested projects, then each group summarize their results to share with the class in a 1-minute presentation. (15-30 minutes, depending on choices made by teacher)

photo of Willard Libby and Ernest Anderson in a lab
Willard Libby (right), the physical chemist who conceived of radiocarbon dating, with graduate student Ernest Anderson.
University of Chicago Photographic Archive

cover of Landmark brochure about radiocarbon dating
"Discovery of Radiocarbon Dating" booklet, produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2016.