Pancake Particles

Detailed instructions for teachers on conducting a hands-on lesson on subatomic particles.

Pancake particles

Concepts covered

  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Magnetism
  • Electricity
  • Astronomy


This activity requires about 20-30 minutes. The activity can be done in a few class sessions or lengthened and done over longer periods of time.


When the atom received its name from Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, they imagined that all the matter around them was made up of a basic unit which was indivisible. In fact the name atom comes from the Greek term atomos, which means “cannot be split.” Of course, through experimentation we know that the atom is actually made up of subatomic particles, and that even those particles are made out of quarks.

Of all the subatomic particles, the electron, proton, and neutron are the units that make up the atom. The photon is an energy particle that comes off the electron. These four can be further classified into baryons (protons and neutrons), leptons (electron), and bosons (photon). These are a few of the many subatomic particles that have been discovered, and are still being discovered, by scientists.

Why do this in your classroom?

  • To show students how the technology they use is shaped by discoveries in physics.
  • To help students understand what the world around them is made out of.
  • To show students how different subatomic particles behave.


The Next Generation Science Standards for this activity are:

Primary: 2-PS1-1, 2-PS1-2, 2-PS1-3, K-2-ETS1-2
Secondary: 4-PS4-2, 5-PS1-1, 5-PS1-3, 3-PS2-4
Middle: MS-PS1-1, MS-PS1-3, MS-PS2-5
High: HS-PS1-1, HS-PS1-8, HS-PS4-3, HS-PS4-4, HS-PS4-5


  • Pancake Particles (Electron, Proton, Photon, Neutron), available for pdfdownload on this page.


  1. Each Pancake Particle has a profile that describes the major characteristics of the particle as well as some of its modern uses. This is a general introduction and students are invited to read the article Subatomic Smackdown to learn more about the particles.
  2. Cut out each particle along the dashed lines.
  3. Take each particle and photograph it (in the tradition of “Flat Stanley”) in a place that highlights something about it — where it can be found, how it can be used, or what its properties are. For example, you could take a photo of the photon with a book, because you couldn’t read without light!
  4. Upload your photos to Twitter using the hashtag #SubatomicSmackdown and #PancakeParticles, and explain what your photo tells us about that particle and why that particle is so awesome!
  5. Continue to check online to see how your favorite particles are doing.

What's happening?

Atoms and their subatomic particles do more than just make up the things around us: They are also important to how the things around us work. Electrons are crucial for electricity and magnetism. Protons are useful for many forms of scientific research and also medical treatments. Neutrons are responsible for the creation of heavy metals such as gold. Photons create the light around us and their speed allows us to use fiber optic cables.

For more information contact MagLab educator Carlos Villa.

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