Introduction: A Student Made Periodic Table

About: Crafychemist and mathemagician extraordinaire. Igniting that spark in STEAM education one project at a time.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table, the Grade 9 Science classes at Vaughan SS have created tiles of all 118 elements! These tiles were installed in the Science wing to showcase student work, encourage student engagement, and divert CD cases from disposal in the landfill (i.e. up-cycling). This installation integrates the Arts into STEM education (now STEAM), and encourages cross-curricular connections between Science, Arts, Mathematics, and Technological Design. Students from all grades were involved in painting, designing, and constructing the periodic table, in addition to producing a time-lapse video of the installation process.

Inspiration: We are indebted to Thornhill’s Science Department for inspiring our Periodic Table and sharing their rubric and lessons learned. We were also inspired by the University of Waterloo’s Periodic Table Project and Timeline of the Elements Projects.

TWO years since we started, we are PROUD to present our student-made Periodic Table! This post has 4 parts:

  1. 118 Element Tiles (Individual student project)
  2. Building the Periodic Table (Designing & constructing the main display)
  3. All the Extras (Laser cutting signs, arrows, etc)
  4. Installing the Periodic Table (Creating time-lapse videos)

Check out the finished videos here and here!

Step 1: 118 Element Tiles (Individual Student Projects)


  • 118+ Regular Jewel/CD Cases (Not the slim cases)
  • Student Assignment Sheet & Rubric (See attached files)
  • CD Template (See attached files)

Learning Goals:

  • communicate ideas, in writing, diagrams and through the use of images
  • demonstrate an understanding of the properties of an element in the periodic table.
  • select, organize, and record relevant information on a research topic from a variety of appropriate sources, including electronic, print, and/or human sources, using suitable formats and an accepted form of academic documentation

The Student Project comprises of 4 parts:

  1. Artwork: Students researched their assigned element and design a tile that illustrated the history, discovery, uses of the element, and physical/chemical properties. Family groups (e.g. Alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, halogens) were indicated by a 1” border corresponding to this colour-coded Periodic Table.
  2. Atomic Properties
  3. Description of the meaning/relevance of your artwork
  4. References

We used a Random Name Picker to assign each element to a student. To ensure an even distribution, we assigned blocks of elements to each class (i.e. #1-10, 31-40 for Class A, #11-20, 41-50 for Class B, #21-30, 51-60 for Class C, etc). This was repeated for several semesters until we had a minimum of one completed tile for each element.

When we started the project, we asked students to help collect CD cases and the majority were donated through online classifieds, and colleagues and friends de-cluttering their basements. Once we had a collection of used CD cases, only the final CD booklet was required. We recommend collecting as many CD cases you can so you can swap out cracked/damaged cases. A template for the CD booklet was provided as a PDF and PowerPoint file for students to edit.

After two years and 500+ students, a jury of students organized and chose which elements to display!

Step 2: Building the Periodic Table Display


We laid out all the elements and decided on a 1” spacing between the cases (approx. width of a meter stick). Seeing all the elements gave us an idea of how BIG the display was going to be and inspired us to break it down into the "spdf blocks" based on the electron configuration. This also solved the problem of transporting full sheets of plywood, and let us add a punch of colour! A little bit of math and optimization got all four blocks onto two 4’x8’ plywood sheets that were cut down at Home Depot. We painted the blocks with two/three coats of water-based Interior Paint + Primer in Satin Enamel. We would highly recommend this paint; it was fast drying, easy to clean-up, had excellent coverage, and did not require sanding. Since we needed small amounts in several colours, we opted for 8 oz. sampler sizes (Red = 1, Blue = 2, Green = 2, Yellow = 3).

To avoid cracking the CD cases, we drilled pilot holes in the back of the CD cases using a 11/64 drill bit. The cases were then mounted using screws.

We marked where we wanted the blocks installed on the concrete wall using green painter’s tape, and put in a work order for the carpenter to complete the installation. 4”x4” scrap blocks were also installed to mount some of additional pieces.

Step 3: All the Extras


I've always wanted to learn how to use a laser cutter, and found an “Intro to 2D CAD and Lasercutting” workshop at our local makerspace, ylab. Perfect! All the extras were designed in DraftSight. The Caution sign, Hydrogen blimp, and Helium balloon were cut from ¼” Plywood and painted. The Acknowledgements sign was also cut from ¼” Plywood and inlaid with 3 mm acrylic. To make up the difference in thickness, 1/8” MDF inlays were dropped in beneath the coloured acrylic. Everything was glued together with Gorilla SuperGlue, and protected with two coats of varnish. The varnish was milky when brushed on but dried clear within minutes, with a light sanding between coats. The balloon and blimp were mounted onto the scrap 4x4" blocks using finishing nails.

The green acrylic arrow (from Elements # 57-71 Lanthanides and Elements # 89-101 Actinides) was drawn in Draftsight and laser-cut from 3 mm green acrylic. We carefully drilled pilot holes in the acrylic and sandwiched the arrow between the CD cases on the d-block. The head of the arrow rests on a 4x4" scrap block for support.

With the display mounted, it was time to install the student tiles!

Step 4: Installing the Periodic Table (Timelapse)

Thank you to Chem13 News for suggesting we create a time-lapse video of the final installation! We rounded up the minions to install each of the 118 tiles, and set up three cameras on tripods to record the entire process (Nikon D3200, Rebel T7 and Samsung S8).

We used iMovie to stitch together the files, speed up the playback (20x), and insert some background music and transitions. The "Making Of" video was made using screen-capture software.

Royalty-free music was downloaded from Musopen and Bensound. Media release forms were collected for all involved.

Step 5: Final Thoughts

Lessons Learned

We consulted A LOT of people on this project: Art suggested paints and varnishes; Tech lent us equipment and materials; and Media Arts and Music answered our copyright questions. The custodians and maintenance staff helped us install the final project. Random strangers in Home Depot answered our material questions.

You could probably complete this project in less than 2 years! It took us some time to figure out what we wanted to do, what material to use, and the extras took on a life of its own!

Final Budget

  • 3/4" Plywood & Screws: $170 CDN
  • Paint & Rollers: $60 CDN
  • Extras: Acrylic, varnish, glue, 1/4" plywood, drill bits, etc $100 CDN

What's Next?

Although it's only been a few months, our Periodic Table has already undergone some changes! Each of the CD cases can still be opened, so it's easy to swap in new work as students complete the assignment. The lids pop off in case we need to replace any that are damaged.

The plan is the use the Periodic Table Display to introduce/review the Chemistry units with a "Pun with Chemistry worksheet" or a "Periodic Table Scavenger Hunt" (sample worksheet #1 or worksheet #2).

We were also thinking of building an interactive "element" into this display - maybe having future students create videos/podcasts and sticking QR codes in the relevant tiles? Build in some micro-controllers, LEDs, and some sort of mobile app? Embed links to alternative periodic tables - Periodic Spirals? Periodic Stars? Figure out what to do if/when element #119 is added?

We will see where things will lead us. When we started we didn't know CAD, how to laser-cut or even how to fit two plywood sheets into a hatchback in a snowstorm. We're still learning.

Classroom Science Contest

Second Prize in the
Classroom Science Contest