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Learning Activity
Journey of My Atoms


This activity combines student learning from the principles Cycling and Recycling with the added perspective that All Life Transforms.

Students select one atom that is now part of their bodies, and imagine its travels through time, then either write, graphic story, or storyboard that atom's travels.

Note: Teachers may want to visit Chapter 3 of Yearning to Be Round, “Meet Your Birth Mother.”

The matter of Earth, it’s substance, its atmosphere, its rocks, its water goes through incredible transformations over vast stretches of time.

Below is the kind of story students are asked to imagine, and turn into a graphic story, or skit (drama), or a written story.

Five billion years ago, a star exploded and a tiny speck of carbon called an atom was created. Let’s call this incredibly small carbon atom Big C, or BC. A tiny alga called a diatom  took BC and other carbon atoms out of the ocean water and made itself a shell.

When the diatom died, it fell to the bottom of the ocean with billions of other diatom shells. All those shells were squeezed together for millions of years by the weight of new sediments (like mud and sand), and eventually transformed into limestone.

Over time, as the continents emerged from the seas, that speck of limestone that was once BC was raised up onto dry land. It rained for a long time, a hundred thousand years or so, and the rock that BC was in, dissolved in the rainwater and was washed into a lake.

One day, a big fish drank the BC-speck and transformed it into fishbone.

Then the fish was eaten by an otter and the otter died of old age one day, and BC washed into the soil. A rootlet of grass sucked BC up onto its sap. A giant mammoth ate the grass blade BC was in …and…and eventually BC-atom ended up in the retina of my left eye.. 

Discus: Virtually all the atoms on Earth here now have been here since Earth was formed.

The interesting thing about that fact is that the atoms our bodies are right this moment made of have been making a long slow journey down the eons of time.

Our bodies are made of re-cycled materials that have temporarily belonged to uncounted lives before our selves ate them,  drank them or breathed them in and made flesh and blood and bone of them.

Our bodies, like the bodies of all life on Earth, are made mostly of just a few chemical elements: Hydrogen, Oxygen, Calcium and Carbon.
Making the Art

Discuss: Atoms are tiny specks of matter so small we can’t even see them with microscopes.

If you pinch your belly between thumb and forefinger, some of the millions of atoms you are squeezing used to be part of a dinosaur. Or many dinosaurs.

And many of those atoms were once breathed in by trees and were wood for a time. Then the wood decayed or burned and its materials were released into the air.

Many living things have used each speck of matter you are made of as part of their bodies before you owned those atoms of matter between your finger and your thumb.

Our bodies (we are not talking about spirits here) are 100% post-consumer content. In other words, our bodies are made entirely from recycled material that has been transformed by living beings many thousands of times.

The task is to imagine the transformations one atom in your body has gone through before it became part of you. Imagine it, and then make a piece of art out of it.

Step by Step

(1) Decide where that atom is in your body right now. Is it in your blood? Your tongue? Your eye? Your toe? Which one? Decide:

(2 )Now decide what kind of atom it is: Oxygen, Hydrogen, Calcium, or Carbon. All of these are found throughout your body.

(3) At this point, give this atom a first name.

(4) Now begin imagining that atom’s creation in a star’s explosion. Imagine that it swirled around in a cloud of stardust for a billion years and became part of Earth when Earth was born.

(5) Now skip the long time between Earth’s birth and the time living things covered the surface of Earth.

(6) At this point, think up the really interesting moments this time-traveling atom had in its journey down the ages.

Now it is part of a stone, now it’s part of a tree fern, then it's sucked down the throat of a giant dragonfly that is eaten by a small dinosaur.

It keeps transforming. Now it’s air, now it’s a worm, now it’s mud for ten thousand years, now it’s a flower’s breath, and on and on until now.

(7 )Now decide what kind of art your imaginings will make?

Make it into any art that will tell the story. It can be a graphic story, a play, a dance, a written story, a memorized story performed for little kids, a series of small paintings of important transformations, or whatever you decide.

(8) Make the art.

Note: Emphasize that the goal is to portray brief moments of transformation (rather than long periods of inactivity or sleep).

Tip: Ask students to imagine they were making a video of their atom-journey of transformation. Discover effective transformation moments to include by thinking about what moments in the atom’s journey would make the most interesting video scenes. Avoid the uneventful scenes.

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