It seems that there's no easy way to teach about valence electrons, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Once your students understand the basic concept of how electrons work, you can strengthen their knowledge with these valence electron activities.
Valence electron activities tend to be comprised of drawing electron dot diagrams or discussing the number of electrons in each shell of an atom. Although these concepts are important, you can incorporate them into engaging activities instead.
Instead of merely drawing an electron dot diagram, let students use buttons to represent them. Provide students with a blank diagram, containing only the nucleus and some empty shells, and let them get to work. At first, they can merely place the correct number of buttons in each shell to represent a specific element; after they have had some practice. Then they can use different color buttons to represent those in the s orbital, the p orbital, the d orbital, and the f orbital.
This easy way to teach about valence electrons is as hands-on as it gets! Place a box in the center of the room, and put two chairs on either side of the box. The box will represent the nucleus, and the chairs will represent the innermost shell of electrons. Place a piece of paper or an index card on each chair, one reading "1s1," and one reading "1s2." Then ask students to work as a class to figure out how many chairs should go in the next two shells of electrons, and what each chair should be labeled. When they finish, have students pretend to be electrons and "fill in" the number of chairs needed to make an element with a small number of electrons, such as oxygen. Give them a bag full of tennis balls or other small objects to represent protons, and tell students to place the correct number of protons for that element into the nucleus. Then have them repeat the process with an element that contains more electrons, such as iron.
So much can be done with the periodic table - if only you could get your students to pay attention to it. But you can! Just draw a life-sized Periodic Table with sidewalk chalk on a large paved area. Let each student choose a square of the Periodic table to stand on (filling in the ones with fewer electrons first, if possible). Then ask them questions about the number of electrons they have, and let the appropriate students call out their answers. For example, you might say "Who has exactly one electron in their outermost shell?" and discuss which students answered and why, or "Noble gases - how many electrons do you need to fill your outermost shell?" This easy way to teach about valence electrons will help students connect the concept of electrons to the periodic table.
Like other chemistry activities, these valence electron activities are the perfect way to make an abstract concept more engaging, especially for kinesthetic learners. In fact, you may find that your most enthusiastic participants are those that have no patience for typical electron diagrams.
Minnesota Science Teachers Education Project. "Modeling Valence Electrons." http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/mnstep/activities/35918.html
Purdue. "Valence Electrons." http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/ch8/index.php
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