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RadTown Radiation Exposure Activity 1: Types of Radiation

Radiation Exposure Activity

Radiation Exposure Image

Radiation is used for many different types of products and technologies. A form of radiation called non-ionizing radiation, has very low frequency wavelengths that transmit data through phone lines or cell towers. Another type of radiation, ionizing radiation, can be used to treat or diagnose illness. Even the sun’s rays are a type of radiation! This activity helps students understand the distinction between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation using interactive worksheets and critical thinking skills. This activity is intended for middle and high school students.

On this page:


Students will:

  • Differentiate between non-ionizing and ionizing radiation.
  • Explore real-world sources of each.
  • Gain an increased awareness of their everyday exposure to radiation.

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Next Generation Science Standards

The concepts in this activity can be used to support the following science standard:

  • PS4. Waves and Electromagnetic Radiation

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Materials and Resources

Each italicized document title can be found at the bottom of this page, and is available for printing and distribution.

  • Radiation Exposure: Teacher Background Information
  • Vocabulary Materials
  • Radiation Types and Sources Worksheet (one per student, pair or group)
  • Electromagnetic Spectrum image; display with computer and projector
  • Radiation Worksheet (one per student, pair or group) and Radiation Worksheet: Teacher Answer Key
  • Marbles — approximately eight to ten marbles per group. Use unique sizes or colors with one marble representing the nucleus, five marbles representing electrons and the remaining two to four marbles representing radiation (e.g., one white, five blue and two to four red marbles)
  • Radiation Sources in Our Community Worksheet (one per student, pair or group) and Radiation Sources in Our Community Teacher Answer Key (optional activity or extension)
  • Student computers with Internet access (optional)

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45-60 minutes, not including optional activities or extensions.

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  • Atom
  • DNA
  • Electromagnetic spectrum
  • Gamma rays
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Non-ionizing radiation
  • Radiation
  • X-rays

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  1. Start with a vocabulary activity if students are not familiar with radiation and the terms used in this activity, or provide students with the terms and definitions. Terms and definitions are available in the Vocabulary Activity developed as part of this series.
  2.  Ask students to hypothesize whether all sources of radiation are the same or different. For example, have students explain whether there is a difference between the radiation from a cellphone, the radiation from the sun, and the radiation used in x-ray machines.
  3. Distribute the Radiation Types and Sources Worksheet. Explain that radiation is energy that travels in the form of waves or high speed particles (photons) and makes up the electromagnetic spectrum in the form of non-ionizing and ionizing radiation. The energy of the radiation shown on the spectrum increases from left to right as the frequency rises.
  4. Direct students to cut out the radiation source images and place them under the matching type of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum.
    1. Alternatives:
      • Have students label each source image with the matching type of radiation.
      • Have eight students write a type of radiation on a sheet of paper (extremely low frequency radiation to gamma rays) and line up in the order of the electromagnetic spectrum. Provide nine other students with a radiation source image (use those provided or larger images of these items) and have them line up accordingly with the students representing the electromagnetic spectrum.
  5. Display the Electromagnetic Spectrum image so students can use it to check their work.
  6. Distribute the Radiation Worksheet and direct students to complete the demonstrations and record their observations. Students should complete the critical thinking questions following the demonstrations. A Radiation Worksheet: Teacher Answer Key has been provided.
    • Demonstration A shows that non-ionizing radiation can cause atoms to vibrate and move. A potential effect is heat generated from the vibration or movement. You can prompt students to think about how we use microwaves to heat our food or how cell phones get warm with use.
    • Demonstration B shows that ionizing radiation can change the structure of an atom by breaking chemical bonds in molecules or removing tightly bound electrons from atoms and creating charged molecules or atoms (ions). A potential effect is cell or DNA damage when this occurs.
  7. Have students share their responses.
  8. Conclude by explaining that people often view ionizing radiation as harmful. However, it is all around us and has been present since the birth of our planet. As a result, our bodies are adapted to some degree of radiation exposure and have developed mechanisms for repairing cell damage from radiation exposure. Health risks and the amount of cell damage depends on the type of radiation, the exposure pathway, the radiation’s energy and the total amount of radiation absorbed.
  9. Optional activities or extensions: Direct students to identify sources of radiation in their community and determine whether they are sources of non-ionizing and/or ionizing radiation.
    • Provide students with the Radiation Sources in Our Community Worksheet. Direct them to identify the location of the radiation sources and indicate whether they are a source of non-ionizing radiation, ionizing radiation or both. Students can refer to RadTown fact sheets (A to Z Index). A Radiation Sources in Our Community: Teacher Answer Key is provided.
    • Direct students to tour their school, home and/or community and identify sources of radiation. Have them generate the list of identified sources by energy range (e.g., radio, microwave, ultraviolet or x-ray) in the electromagnetic spectrum and type (e.g., non- ionizing radiation, ionizing radiation or both).
    • Have students research and debate the effects of non-ionizing radiation (e.g., use of microwaves and cellphones).

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Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

The concepts in the Types of Radiation Activity align with the following standards:

CCSS English Language Arts Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6-12.1 Comprehension and Collaboration
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6-12.2 Comprehension and Collaboration
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6-12.4 Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-12.7 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.1 Text Types and Purposes

CCSS Mathematics Standards


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Printable Worksheets and Classroom Aids

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