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Lesson Plans
I'm Late, I'm Late, for a Radioactive Date!
Using Radioactive Decay and
Primary Sources to Date the Shroud of Turin

This lesson is written by Master Teacher Christopher Ward.
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 Three to four 45-minute class periods


This lesson can be used as an introduction to radioactivity. Students should have familiarity with the scientific notation and the units milli, micro, and nano. Students will be introduced to being science/math detectives by trying to figure out the relationship of organisms using graphs. Students then are introduced to the controversy around the Shroud of Turin, which has been carbon dated. What is the process of carbon dating, and can the results be believed? Through the use of an interactive Web site, students will learn about C-14 and C-14 dating. Then students will analyze an article written about the C-14 dating of the Shroud of Turin and draw conclusions. Although the results are definitive, they can be used to support either point of view. Finally, students will do a radioactive simulation with pennies to reinforce the skills they learned about radioactive decay.

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:

  • Explain how graphed data can be misleading
  • Define and explain the process of radioactive decay
  • Make predictions based on the collection of census simulation data
  • Explain what half-life is and how it can be used
  • Develop and use a mathematical formula for radioactive decay
  • Set up a data table and plot the decay curve for a radioactive element
  • Plot the product curve for radioactive decay
  • Determine the half-life using the decay and product curve for a radioactive element
  • Use the Internet to learn about the process of radioactive decay
  • Discover a limiting factor of radioactive decay
  • Solve a real-life problem using technology, math, and science


National Science Education Standards

Content Standard A:
As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry.

Content Standard B:
As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of properties and changes of properties in matter, motions and forces, transfer of energy.

Content Standard G:
As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of science as a human endeavor, the nature of science, the history of science.

Technology Foundation Standards for Students

1. Basic Operations and Concepts
Students are proficient in the use of technology.

5. Technology Research Tools
Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.

6. Technology Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Tools
Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions. Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.

New York State Standards in Science - Intermediate

Standard 1: Analysis, Inquiry, and Design
Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions. (Mathematical Analysis and Scientific Inquiry)

Standard 2: Information Systems
Students will access, generate, process, and transfer information using appropriate technologies.

Standard 6: Interconnectedness: Common Themes
Students will understand the relationship and common themes that connect mathematics, science, and technology and apply the themes to these and other areas of learning. (Models)

Standard 7: Interdisciplinary Problem Solving
Students will apply the knowledge and thinking skills of mathematics, science, and technology to address real-life problems and make informed decisions.

New York State Standards in Math - Intermediate

Key Idea 1: Mathematical Reasoning
Students use mathematical reasoning to analyze mathematical situations, make conjectures, gather evidence, and construct an argument.

Key Idea 2: Number and Numeration
Students use number sense and numeration to develop an understanding of the multiple use of numbers in the real world, the use of numbers to communicate mathematically, and the use of numbers to communicate mathematical ideas.

Key Idea 3: Operations
Students use mathematical operations and relationships among them to understand mathematics.

Key Idea 4: Modeling/Multiple Representation
Students use mathematical modeling/multiple representation to provide a means of presenting, interpreting, communicating, and connecting mathematical information and relationships.

Key Idea 7: Patterns/Functions
Students use patterns and functions to develop mathematical power, appreciate the true beauty of mathematics, and construct generalizations that describe patterns simply and efficiently.

Media Components

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Episode #133

Math Vantage, "Data: What Does It Mean?"

Exponential and Logarithmic Functions, Episode #3

Web Sites:

Geology Labs On-line (Virtual Dating) Teacher site
This site (part of gives you the full access to all the teacher programs for virtual radioactive dating. Check Virtual Dating Demo then Virtual Dating Radiocarbon. This allows you to disable the question checker and preview the entire site quickly. Virtual Dating works best with Netscape Communicator 4 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 with JavaScript enabled.

Geology Labs On-line (Virtual Dating) Student site
This site (which is identical to the above except it has the question checker enabled) gives the students access to the site. Students must get the questions correct before proceeding to the next page. The question checker tells which question is wrong and gives the student a second or fifth chance. This site enables the teacher to see who is having difficulty and who is not (by looking at the speed of the student). Virtual Dating works best with Netscape Communicator 4 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 with JavaScript enabled.

Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin
This site is a reprint of the original article analyzing the Shroud of Turin. It was reprinted from Nature, Vol. 337, No. 6208, pp. 611-615, 16th February, 1989.

Radioactive Decay Model
This site gives you a hands-on student activity to understand the decay curve of C-14.

Decay Calculator
This site allows students to discover the amount of radioisotope left after different amounts of time. It requires Netscape Navigator versions 3.0x and higher and Microsoft Internet Explorer versions 3.0 and higher.


Teacher Materials:

  • "The Pink Panther Theme" by Henry Mancini (on CD or tape)
  • CD or tape player

    Per student:
  • Student Sheet #1
  • Student Sheet #2
  • Student Sheet #3
  • Student Sheet #4.1
  • Student Sheet #4.2

    Per group of 2-4 (in a basket or lab area)
  • Shoebox
  • 100 pennies