Carbon Dating Lesson Plan

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

Educate your students about carbon dating with this lesson plan. They will view a video lesson, participate in three hands-on activities, and take a related follow-up quiz to test them on main concepts.

Learning Objectives

After studying this lesson, your students will be able to:

  • Determine what a half-life is and how it relates to carbon dating
  • Explain how the basic process of carbon dating works
  • Name some items that can be analyzed by carbon dating


1-1.5 Hours


Key Vocabulary

  • Carbon-14
  • Carbon cycle
  • Carbon dating
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Half-life
  • Nitrogen-14 atoms
  • Oxygen
  • Photosynthesis
  • Radiocarbon dating
  • Willard Libby

Curriculum Standards


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.


Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text's explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.


Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 9-10 texts and topics.


  • Inform your students they will be studying carbon dating.
  • Display the image of Willard Libby.
  • Ask your students if anyone is familiar with Libby or his work.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Start the video lesson What is Carbon Dating: Definition & Overview and pause for the first time at 0:54.
    • What are two examples of items that can be tested using carbon dating?
    • What is another name for carbon dating?
    • Does carbon date things that once were alive?
    • Which scientist developed carbon dating? When?
    • What is carbon-14?
    • What prize did he win?
    • How old can materials be that are tested by carbon dating?
  • Now, restart the video and pause this time at 2:09.
    • To what does the term half-life refer?
    • What is the half-life of carbon-14?
  • Next, restart the video and pause again at 4:05.
    • How is carbon-14 formed in the atmosphere?
    • How are the carbon cycle and photosynthesis related?
    • Can you name five uses for carbon dating?
    • What famous king's remains were tested by carbon dating?
    • After which decade did carbon dating become commonplace?
  • Lastly, restart the video and view the section 'Lesson Summary.'
  • Review the entire video lesson and answer any relevant student questions.
  • Have your students take the lesson quiz to demonstrate their understanding of the fundamentals of the lesson.

Activity One

  • Inform your students they will be playing a '15 Questions' type game involving carbon dating.
  • Divide your students up into pairs.
  • Ask the following questions and have the pairs use the text lesson or the Internet to find the answers.
    • 1) What famous king was determined through carbon dating to have been born c.1341 BC? (King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut)
    • 2) How long did Willard Libby live after winning his Nobel Prize? (about 20 years)
    • 3) Recently, new advances in carbon dating revealed what about the age of the ancient pyramids of Egypt? (they are about 300 years older than original measurements)
    • 4) What is the half-life of carbon-14? (about 5,730 years)
    • 5) What is the oldest object ever found without carbon dating? (a zircon crystal that is about 4.4 billion years old)
    • 6) What are the oldest human objects ever found without carbon dating? (Ethiopian stone tools from about 2.6 million years ago)
    • 7) What is the oldest object ever carbon dated? (the limit of carbon dating is about 50,000 years, so answers include two ancient flutes found in Germany that are about 43,000 years in age)
    • 8) Willard Libby is also known for a second famous scientific accomplishment. What was it? (he worked on the Manhattan Project)
    • 9) The amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere is the same as what? (the amount of carbon-14 in living things)
    • 10) Who is the famous scientist who discovered King Tut's tomb? When? (Howard Carter in the year 1922)
    • 11) When oxygen reacts with carbon-14 what is formed? (carbon dioxide)
    • 12) What prehistoric caves have been determined by carbon dating to be about 40,000 years old? (answers include those in Europe and Indonesia)
    • 13) Why isn't carbon dating used for dinosaur bones? (it only works for about 50,000 years, but the last dinosaurs died out about 66 million years ago.
    • 14) What is dendrochronology? (this is another word for tree-ring dating, which is often used in conjunction with carbon dating)
    • 15) Why were original carbon dating methods from the 1950s often inaccurate by several hundred years? (it was incorrectly believed that levels of carbon isotopes never varied)

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