"CIA" Chemicals in Action: Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy

Nothing captures the imagination like murder, mystery, science and suspense! This activity includes an introduction to electromagnetic radiation and atomic spectra, followed by a fictitious “murder whodunit” scenario of a loathsome individual who was bent on cancelling all future Science programs. All students participate as subjects, help gather evidence from their classmates, and ultimately analyze the sample evidence in real-time to determine the identity of the guilty party.

Typically, the activity works best with a class size of up to 30 students and takes approximately 1 hour to complete. This most likely will be in the form of two half-hour sessions one week apart, which allows for the sample evidence vials from the student suspects to be shipped to the BC-ILN at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC for analysis by flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy. If shipping aqueous samples is not possible, an alternate version allows students to direct the sample evidence collection by a BC-ILN technician.

The following learning activities have been developed that are designed to spark an interest in the chemistry present in our lives. While loosely targetted to high school students, the primary goal of these activities is to increase student interest and engagement in science.


What's in your water? or What's in your drink?: Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy


This learning activity allows students to collect an aqueous sample of their choice and quantitatively analyze it for elements of their choosing. Background information on sample collection and preparation is provided. Typical samples may include water collected from a variety of environments or locations (such as household faucets, ponds, well water, rain water, storm water run-off, drinking, or waste water) as well as commercial or prepared beverages.

We encourage students to take samples from their community or test what they consume. As expected, this stimulates a great deal of interest and gets them thinking about levels of various metals present in water or product labeling and consumer information of commercial drinks. Introductions to electromagnetic radiation and atomic spectra are incorporated into the activity.

Can he drink this and (legally) drive?: Gas Chromatography with Flame Ionization Detection


This learning activity allows students to analyze a series of yellow liquids which appear quite similar on visual inspection, but are actually very different chemically. One sample is a popular brand of tequila, another is de-alchoholized beer, and the last is apple juice. In order to answer the stated question, students must analyze the samples by GC and determine which complex chromatographic trace reveals the (significant!) presence of ethanol.