Creating Interactive Particle Diagram Activities for Online Instruction

particle diagrams of reactants and products

You don't have to be a Modeler (i.e., a teacher who practices Modeling Instruction) to appreciate the utility of particle diagrams. Many chemistry teachers use models and diagrams to help students describe how matter behaves at the particle level. In the AP Chemistry Course and Exam Description, two of the six science practices refer directly to models and representations. A number of strategies for using particle diagrams have been discussed by ChemEd X bloggers (Posthuma, Meyers, Gardner, Ragan, and Meacham), and articles on particulate-level modeling have appeared in the Journal of Chemical Education1,2.

In a face-to-face environment, students can use markers and whiteboards to create particle diagrams. These diagrams can illustrate students' thinking and help teachers to uncover possible misconceptions. In the world of online instruction, it can be challenging to find a simple way for students to create particle diagrams. Although a variety of online whiteboards exist, I wanted to come up with a system where students could use a drag-and-drop technique instead of drawing particles with digital tools. Anyone who has tried to draw objects with a mouse or a touchpad knows that it's not always easy to control the cursor smoothly. I didn't want the process of using the technology to impede the overall task. In this blog post, I describe how to create interactive particle diagram activities that are easy for students to use. This strategy is applicable to almost any particle diagram and should be useful for teachers during virtual lessons.

Note: If you teach AP Chemistry, I encourage you to join the APTeach community. (It's free!) You are welcome to ask me questions or visit to learn more about how you can connect with both new and experienced AP Chemistry teachers.

Over the summer I was thinking about strategies for teaching online, and I had several productive conversations with other teachers during APTeach sessions. In early August, Samantha (Sam) Ramaswamy and I were sharing ideas during an APTeach session entitled Building Your Virtual Toolbox to Effectively Teach AP Chemistry. Sam was using Google Slides to create drag and drop card sort activities. She recently shared this strategy in a ChemEdX blog post. I started to imagine the possibilities. If students could move and sort cards on a slide, they could also move ions and molecules on an interactive particle diagram.

I watched a few YouTube videos that explained how to make interactive Google Slides. One of the tips that I found most useful involved stacking multiple copies of the same image on top of one another. I realized that I could create a "particle bank" on one side of the slide so that students could use them in an interactive way. For example, I could place 10 images of a certain particle directly on top of each other. If I use the alignment tools, the stack of 10 images appears as a single image on the slide. When a student performs a drag and drop action to move a particle into position, they will only move the image at the top of the stack. The student can repeat the drag and drop procedure and use as many particles as they need, until their diagram is complete.


The Process

Step 1: Think of a chemistry lesson or an activity in which students will use a particle diagram. Topics may include chemical reactions, stoichiometry, intermolecular forces, gases, acid-base titrations, etc. The particles in the activity could represent subatomic particles, atoms, ions, or molecules.

Video 1: Image Creation Process from ChemEd Xchange on Vimeo.


Step 2: Create digital images for the particles that students will use to complete the activity. There are a variety of ways to do this. In her recent DIY Particulate Models blog post, Melissa Hemling offers tips for creating your own particle diagrams. My personal choice was to use the drawing tools in PowerPoint to create my images. I saved each image as a PNG file. After I inserted the image into my Google Slides presentation, I used formatting tools to adjust the size of the image. Video 1 above demonstrates my procedure for doing this.


Video 2: Create a Digital Card Sort Using Google Slides, Samantha Ramaswamy's YouTube Channel (Aug 6, 2020)*


Step 3: Create a presentation in Google Slides that will serve as the interactive work space for your students. There are a variety of ways that students can interact with the slides. You can create text boxes for students to write chemical equations or submit responses to the questions that you ask. You can create "particle banks" on the side of the slide for students to perform the drag and drop procedure described earlier. When you are creating a your presentation, it is often useful to "lock down" certain parts of the slide that you don't want your students to modify or move around. If you don't know how to lock objects in Google Slides, you can watch Sam Ramaswamy tutorial in video 2 above. (A second option is available on the Flipped Classroom Tutorials YouTube channel - How to Lock Objects in Google Slides.) When an image becomes part of the slide background, it cannot be changed by the students. Ideally, the only objects that can be manipulated on the slide are the particles that you want your students to move around.


Video 3: Force a Copy Using the Link, Samantha Ramaswamy's YouTube Channel (Aug 6, 2020)*


Step 4: Once you have completed your presentation, you can share the file with your students. It is essential to use a special kind of link when you share this file. You need to do two things: (1) give students the ability to edit the slides and (2) prompt them to create their own copy of the file in their Google drive. Sam Ramaswamy explains how this can be done in video 3 above. After the students have completed the assignment, they can share it with you in order to receive feedback.


Video 4: Precipitation Reactions from ChemEd Xchange on Vimeo.


Watch how this technique can be used to represent a precipitation reaction in video 4 above and ion-dipole forces in video 5 below.


Video 5: Ion-Dipole Forces from ChemEd Xchange on Vimeo.


Activities Using Particulate Diagrams

I have created some activities involving particle diagrams and I am sharing them below. I hope to create more activities throughout the school year.

Precipitation Reactions

Particle Diagrams for Precipitation Reactions (Instructions) - Students can only view this document.

Particle Diagrams for Precipitation Reactions (Student Version) - Students can edit this document. When a student clicks on this link, they will be prompted to make a copy of this document and save it to their Google drive.(See video 3)

Ion-Dipole Forces

Particle Diagram for Representing Ion-Dipole Forces in NaCl(aq) (Student Version) - Students can edit this document. When a student clicks on this link, they will be prompted to make a copy of this document and save it to their Google drive. (See video 3)

Teachers should log into their ChemEd X account to gain access to additional documents in the Supporting Information. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. If you become inspired to create interactive activities, please share what you did and how it worked with your students. I encourage you to log in and add your comments to the conversation below.


Notes & References

(Both JChemEd articles below are designated as AuthorsChoice. They are freely available without a J.Chem.Ed subscription.)

1. Evidence for the Effectiveness of Inquiry-Based, Particulate-Level Instruction on Conceptions of the Particulate Nature of Matter – Chad A. Bridle and Ellen J. Yezierski, J.Chem.Ed., 2012, 89, 2, 192–198.

2. Integrating Particulate Representations into AP Chemistry and Introductory Chemistry Courses – Stephen G. Prilliman, J.Chem.Ed.2014, 91, 9, 1291–1298. 

* Video 1 & 2 can also be found in Sam Ramaswamy's ChemEd X blog post: Adapting Card Sorts for Digital Instruction.


Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds.


Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. Use a model to predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system.

Assessment Boundary: