Understanding atoms

Teaching atomic theory in primary

Can primary age students grasp key idea behind atomic theory? Mark Verde, Assistant Principal Learning & Curriculum, Bangkok Patana School certainly thinks so, and research seems to support him.

Questioning an assumption

Primary Science at Bangkok Patana SchoolPuffs of smoke, explosions, chemicals that change – these are reactions common to science labs and typically make for great excitement amongst young children. These reactions are all underpinned by atomic theory – yet understanding atomic theory is deemed too difficult for young minds and typically not taught to students until they enter secondary school. One science teacher in Australia has questioned this practice and is at the heart of a growin


Man on a mission

Ian Stuart is a retired secondary school Chemistry teacher from Australia and the founder of Atomic School. He learnt from his own son that young children can grasp and understand the concepts of atomic theory. Ian’s goal is to bring atomic theory to every primary school in the world, opening up student learning to this concept by motivating, engaging and critically thinking about atoms, molecules and elements in the periodic table. He will do this by providing opportunities for the students to investigate experiment and understand the learning behind atomic theory.

Ian was introduced to Bangkok Patana School by Rubin Meerman, the ‘Surfing Scientist’ a well-known Australian TV personality. After spending a week at the School, Meerman observed that the students’ levels of engagement with discovery and excitement over science were perfect conditions for the Ian’s ideas to be introduced.

Why wait?

Most students around the world get the opportunity to learn about this essential scientific concept when they are in secondary school and some only, when they opt to study this aspect of chemical science in their learning journey during IGCSE.  So why wait until then! Ian’s research and practice with the University of South Queensland,  has shown that children are ready to explore atomic theory from the age of five upwards. In Thailand, Bangkok Patana School has decided to partner with Ian Stuart and introduce atomic theory learning into primary school. “We are  excited to collaborate with Ian and open up a new concept of scientific learning for our students,” said Jason Cooper, Primary Principal at Patana


Patana has therefore become the first school in Asia and one of a few schools around the world , working with Ian Stuart to pioneer the teaching of atomic theory at primary school level. In March 2019, Ian was at school for a week and over this time he collaborated closely with the Primary lead science teacher and the science advocates from each age phase, to develop the concept of teaching atomic theory. He modelled a series of three lessons in Year 1 , Year 3 and Year 5,  beginning with the question of What is an Atom? and building up to the students in Year 3 and Year 5 constructing a protein molecule from various atoms.

Positive response

Primary Science at Bangkok Patana School

The learning we observed throughout the week was rapid, engaging and exciting. Students were more than capable of responding to the material and by giving young students this backbone of knowledge, we expect to make science accessible to them and help them make the transition to the challenges of Secondary science more effectively.

Here are the outlines of the three lessons we tried out:

Lesson 1 introduced the atom by using investigations with microscopes of varying magnification to understand that all things are made up of atoms that cannot be seen by the human eye because they are so small; a million can be found on the tip of a pin.

Lesson 2 built on the previous knowledge and introduced the periodic table, exposing the students to metals, semi metals and non-metals that had specific symbols and numbers assigned to them dependant on their weight.

Lesson 3 provided opportunities for the students to build molecules of varying length and complexity from atoms, starting with a simple H2O structure, which grew into a string of 13 amino acids to form a protein molecule.

A week to reflect on

The whole week was captured on video, so that the learning could be shared within the School community and with a wider audience across the world. Rubin Meerman was certainly enthusiastic about what was happening at Patana.

“Ian Stuart’s discovery that young children are capable of and absolutely love learning atomic theory is a game changer that propels them a decade ahead of their peers. Most adults are baffled by the Periodic Table but it is, quite literally, Mother Nature’s alphabet. Atoms are her letters making molecules her words. Chemical reactions are her sentences which makes life the most amazing story atoms have ever told. I can’t wait to see what Bangkok Patana School students will achieve with this knowledge!” said Rubin Meerman (The Surfing Scientist).

Next step

The next step for us is to develop a specific unit of learning that opens up atomic theory to the students, and to explore further Ian Stuart’s central idea, supported by  research from the University of Southern Queensland, that primary students can readily understand atomic theory and internalise it when their  imaginations are fresh and enthusiastic

Bangok Patana School AP Mark Verde

Mark Verde is Assistant Principal, Learning and Curriculum at Bangkok Patana School

Video of students learning atomic theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=octSYvZZ6LE

For more about Ian Stuart’s ideas – and for a range of free resources. see Ian Stuart’s Atomic School website: https://atomicschool.com/


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