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The Chemical Educator

ISSN: 1430-4171 (electronic version)

Table of Contents

Abstract Volume 17 (2012) pp 190-194
DOI 10.1007/s00897122443

Radiocarbon Dating: Developing a Conceptual Understanding via Animated Spreadsheets

Scott A. Sinex* and Barbara A. Gage

Department of Physical Sciences and Engineering, Prince George’s Community College, Largo, MD 20774,,
Received December 12, 2011. Accepted August 10, 2012.

Published: 21 September 2012

Abstract. Radiocarbon dating is a Nobel Prize winning, practical application of chemistry that is used in the Earth sciences and anthropology. Most general chemistry textbooks do a lack-luster job of explaining dating methods and their assumptions but jump right into mathematical equations and a variety of plug-and-chug problems. We illustrate a dynamic, conceptual approach using pre-built animated spreadsheets to investigate the process of radiocarbon dating. A number of the assumptions and uncertainties of radiocarbon dating are explored and discovered by students. Students need to know the basics of mathematical modeling, another valuable skill, to predict-test-analyze and then explain and deal with error analysis. Students address many higher-order “what if” questions and use a variety of science process skills to develop a deeper conceptual understanding.

Key Words: Computers in Chemistry; general chemistry

(*) Corresponding author. (E-mail:,

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