Nuclear Review Puzzles with the help of AI

Nuclear Review Puzzles preview image with ChemEd X logo

I recently wrote about using Chat GPT to help with finding phenomena for writing a test (see Using AI to Source Phenomena). The success of that experience led me to start another session with Chat GPT when I was designing an escape room component.

My prompt: Help me create a decay chain that will produce element symbols that make up a word.

Chat GPT struggled with this, and gave me results that didn’t match with what it said it had given me, and in places even gave me incorrect information. I asked it 3 or 4 times to try again, pointing out places where it was making mistakes. Here is one of the responses it gave to my prompt:

It was fascinating to watch AI struggle with this request, and while it didn’t give me immediately useful information for my activity, it did give me an idea for something else: error analysis. I could give this to my students and ask them to find the errors. In this way, I’m also passively reminding them that they always need to take AI responses with a grain of salt.

After several rounds of tweaking my request, I realized that my ask required too many unspoken steps for Chat GPT to manage it well, especially as I wanted this to be a real situation that I could model with a graphic. Chat GPT was making up elements that didn’t exist, or having elements go through types of decay that they don’t undergo in nature. I realized that instead of helping me design the entire activity, I needed to switch my approach and get Chat GPT to instead help me with some of the specific subtasks that were involved in creating the activity. I found a decay chain graphic on a Google search and asked GPT to help me with this task: 

Me: “Find a word that can be spelled using these chemical symbols. You do not have to use both letters of the symbol, or use all of these symbols, or use them in this order: U, Th, Pa, Ac, Ra, Fr, Rn, At, Po, Bi, Pb, Tl”. 

Chat GPT told me I could spell PARTICULAR. I changed this to particle because it fit the unit theme, and then designed a puzzle for students to solve. I would not have come up with the word PARTICLE on my own without the idea from AI, and it was a huge time saver.

After I had designed the full puzzle itself, I asked Chat GPT to help me craft my intro to the decay chain: 

Me: “Please give me a brief, general description of a decay chain that I can share with my students.”

I ended up with a short reading that gave students vocabulary they would need to complete the activity. The final product was really great, and provided students practice with reading a short text, analyzing a graphic, and writing nuclear decay expressions. 

screenshot of decay chain puzzle found in supporting information

Figure 1: Decay chain puzzle 1


I designed a second challenge for my students to follow up this first puzzle, this time requiring them to translate information from a text into diagrams. Again my AI teaching assistant (Chat GPT) came to my aid. One of the isotopes it used when I asked for a decay chain example was carbon-11. I asked it more about real-world use of carbon-11, and Chat GPT told me it is used in PET scans. I verified this information, and then used a combination of information from Chat GPT’s response and a Google search to assemble a prompt for students to work through. This second puzzle provides your students practice shifting between text and models.

I’ll continue to use Chat GPT to help me do some of the mental lift when designing activities, keeping in mind that I need to read its results carefully, but that unexpected inspiration can strike even from less than helpful AI responses!


Puzzle A – Decipher the codeword

Radioactive decay is a natural process that occurs when unstable atomic nuclei transform into more stable configurations. This transformation can involve the emission of various particles, such as alpha particles (consisting of two protons and two neutrons), beta particles (electrons or positrons), or gamma rays (high-energy photons). Decay chains are sequences of these transformations.

In a decay chain, there are several steps that repeat:

  • Parent Isotope: It begins with a radioactive parent isotope, which is initially unstable. This isotope has an excess of energy or an unstable arrangement of protons and neutrons in its nucleus.
  • Decay Process: The parent isotope undergoes a radioactive decay process, where it emits particles or radiation to become a different isotope or element. There are different types of decay, including alpha decay (emission of alpha particles), beta decay (emission of beta particles), and gamma decay (emission of gamma rays).
  • Daughter Isotope: The result of the decay process is a daughter isotope or element. This daughter isotope may also be unstable, leading to further decay.
  • Repeat: The daughter isotope may continue to undergo further decay processes, producing additional daughter isotopes. This chain of transformations can continue until a stable, non-radioactive isotope is reached.
  • Stability: Eventually, the decay chain leads to a stable isotope or element that no longer undergoes radioactive decay. At this point, the process ceases, and the element remains in its current form unless subjected to external changes.

Decay chains are essential in understanding the behavior of radioactive materials in nature, including the formation of stable elements from radioactive ones. They can vary in length and complexity depending on the specific radioactive element and the path of decay it follows. Studying decay chains helps scientists estimate the age of materials, trace the origins of elements, and assess the risks associated with radioactive substances.

Use the decay chain shown to fill in the nuclear equations. In each decay equation, put the DECAY PARTICLE FIRST and the DAUGHTER ISOTOPE second. Use the highlighted letters of each symbol found in the BOX to spell the word at the bottom of the page. The letters will need to be UNSCRAMBLED to spell the word.

You will find the remainder of the puzzle in the Supporting Information. 

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Puzzle B – A New Kind of PET Scan

A relatively new radio drug, carbon-11 acetate, is being used in PET scans. Initial studies in 2017 showed much better contrast for brain tumor detection than previous PET methods. Carbon-11 (C-11) is used in positron emission tomography (PET) scans as a radiotracer. PET scans are a valuable medical imaging technique that allows physicians and researchers to visualize the metabolic and biochemical processes occurring within the body. Here's more information about C-11 and how it is utilized in PET scans:

  • Radiotracer Production: Carbon-11 is a radioactive isotope of carbon, and it is produced by cyclotron irradiation in a particle accelerator. During this process, a cyclotron particle accelerator bombards non-radioactive nitrogen-14 with protons, resulting in the production of oygen-15. This then undergoes radioactive decay into three products, one of which alpha decay to produce radioactive C-11 nuclei. This is then prepared as a solution for intravenous administration.
  • Radioactive Decay: Carbon-11 has a relatively short half-life of about 20 minutes. This means that after it is produced, it rapidly undergoes radioactive decay by emitting a positron (a positively charged electron).
  • Positron Emission: Inside the body, the emitted positron from C-11 travels a short distance within the body tissue before it encounters an electron. When the positron collides with an electron, the particles annihilate each other, producing two gamma photons traveling in opposite directions.
  • Gamma Photon Detection: Special detectors placed around the patient's body can detect these pairs of gamma photons. The detectors record the timing and location of each photon interaction.
  • Image Reconstruction: A computer processes the data collected by the detectors to create a three-dimensional image of the distribution of C-11 within the body. The resulting PET scan image displays areas with higher concentrations of the radiotracer, highlighting metabolic activity.

Use the particles provided to go through the processes laid out in the rest of the puzzle worksheet. For each part of the process, write the equation in the top box, starting with the final particle from the previous step and showing the nuclear process for the step, then draw an image of the RESULTING nucleus after that step in the lower box.

You will find the remainder of the puzzle in the Supporting Information. 

Supporting Information can be viewed when you are logged into your ChemEd X account. Not a member? Register for FREE!


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