Tag Archives: chemistry

Chemistry from ACS

I know that the blog hasn’t had the big science focus that I had a couple of years ago. However, we do still do science regularly with a small group and I facilitate hands on learning and occasionally experiments. Since we did a full cycle of science topics over the course of four years, I decided to ask the kids what they wanted to revisit. First, we did some physics, but next they wanted to take on chemistry, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.

I looked at a lot of different potential resources for teaching chemistry and I thought about using Inquiry in Action from the American Chemical Society, but it seemed too simple with too many things we’d done in the past. I considered doing The Elements from Ellen McHenry, but it was so focused on a single aspect of chemistry and after doing most of The Brain, I knew I liked her products, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this particular program. I thought about doing chemistry the way we always have by doing our own demonstrations and explorations. I bought an excellent book called 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances with that in mind. However, in the end, I decided to go with the American Chemical Society’s free middle school program. Some of the information has to be scaled down a little since I am working with a group of mostly fifth graders and a few younger kids. However, it has been interesting to use an actual, full science curricula for the first time ever.

The cover page of Middle School ChemistryThe program is not long enough to take the whole year. There are six chapters. Doing the bulk of the experiments from each chapter with a small group is taking us about two weeks per chapter. If I had the kids filling out every table and worksheet, this would be different, but often we do most of the hands on stuff together as a demonstration and discussion and I choose one or two activities to have them really do fully on their own with more writing and recording. I haven’t had them do many of the worksheet elements at all. Instead, we’ve talked about the questions on them. However, even if I did, I doubt it would take a full year.

Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections have student and teacher pages. The student pages are extensive instructions with worksheets and tables to fill out. There are often sections with additional science background for the teacher, which I found very useful. Each chapter has a section of student reading, which we have used for each chapter. I like the progression of information, both overall in the program and within each chapter. Sometimes the organization of the information feels a little overwhelming. It would be much more usable as a physical text, but since I have only the pdf, there is a lot of scrolling to do, which isn’t always ideal. There is multimedia available for every chapter, however those pieces are pretty simplistic. Most of them are short animations of models of molecules interacting to imitate what students have just done in their hands on explorations and experiments.


The heart of the program is really the hands on element. I liked that the experiments are tied very closely to the information. For the most part they have “worked” the way that we expect. This was not a “household substances” sort of program. Most of the things we’ve needed have been things we have around the house like water and salt, or things that are easy to get like Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, and clear plastic cups. However, many experiments also call for chemistry glass like graduated cylinders and a few call for chemicals you need to special order or seek out particularly, like calcium chloride. Also, special equipment like a ball and ring apparatus, density rods, and density cubes is called for. I spent a decent amount on supplies at Home Science Tools. However, I figure we’ll be glad of having the science glass later on and all of the special equipment I bought turned out to be great fun. The ball and ring apparatus shows how molecules expand when heated. We did that demo several times over because it was fun to see. And the density cubes were great fun to play with. We really enjoyed having them, so they were worth the money. The fact that the program is free helps offset some of the costs of buying classroom type equipment.

Overall, I really like this program. We have shied away from science curricula because nearly everything I’ve seen has felt like busy work with very little hands on components and only poorly written text. This program is really all well-organized, worthwhile experiments. I would still love to have a more engaging, longer text than what the ACS program has, but at least it’s succinct and well-written. I’ve also had to supplement with videos I find myself, but we’ve found a lot of great ones. We’ve especially been enjoying many of the TED Ed videos and we’ve returned to using a lot of the old Eureka! shorts, which have covered the information perfectly. Here’s the TED Ed chemistry playlist. And here’s a playlist for all the Eureka! videos.

I think we might have been better off waiting a year or two to try this program so that some of the things I’ve had to simplify could have been more fully explored. But that’s what happens when you put the kids in charge of what they want to learn. Overall, we’ve been pleased and it gives me hope that while elementary science programs weren’t our cup of tea, we may find more options for serious home science study in the upper grades.

Water and Fluids

A had a few goals for this week.  I wanted to look more at states of matter and changes in states of matter.  I wanted the kids to get how matter changes state.  I also wanted to present some basic information about water: how important it is for life, how it’s both plentiful and scarce, how it’s the only substance we find as a solid, liquid and gas in nature.


There are so many children’s books about water, it boggles the mind.  I feel like I could list twice as many as I’m about to and still leave out dozens of amazing gems.  All of these were great and unlike some science editions where the books are merely decent conveyances of information we need, this time the books were great children’s literature.

First of all, we enjoyed the book One Well by Rochelle Straus and Rosemary Woods, which talked about water mostly in a cultural context.  It laid out really nicely how we have so much water and so little, as well as how connected water is and how endangered clean water is.  In that same sort of context, the National Geographic book A Cool Drink of Water by Barbara Kerley was also really nice.  The photos were amazing.  There’s very little text in the book, but there’s a nice little bit about each photo’s origins at the end.  The book Water Cycle by Thomas Locker was another great book that included poetry and science, especially of the water cycle, as the title implies.  However, our favorite was the book One Drop of Water by Walter Wick, who also created the I Spy books.  Here, he uses his excellent cameras to capture water in some amazing moments.  The text aligned nicely with our unit, explaining molecules and changes in state in vivid terms.

For experiment books, I had a few things, including the Kingfisher book I drew from the week before and a New True Book of simple water experiments.  However, overall, there was no great stand out title for water experiments that I found and many of the things we did were simply common sense.


Yet again, there are many good ones for this topic.  Bill Nye brings us a couple of episodes about this topic.  First of all, there’s Fluids, which goes nicely with our continued states of matter exploration.  Secondly, he has a whole episode for the Water Cycle.  The Magic School Bus has “Wet All Over” about water.  For a quick introduction, here’s the subscription service BrainPop’s video about water.

I found a lot of good YouTube options for this topic.  Here’s a National Geographic video about water use that has an environmental bent.  And here’s another one from Good Magazine that’s very similar in content (if different in style).

Here’s Veritasium’s cute video about states of matter and water.  And here’s a quick video about the Water Cycle by NASA.  Our favorite, which we watched several times over was this beautiful video of a single drop of water, which I found on The Kid Should See This:


We began by reviewing what we knew about the three main states of matter.  I told them we had explored solids a good but but were going to look at liquids more this week.  I told all the kids to go find two liquids.  They came back with a nice assortment of oil, water, maple syrup, soap, yellow paint and so forth.

Next, we did a couple of activities to explore how different liquids have different properties, just like solids.  This site has a more sophisticated version of what we did.  We began by doing a simple one we had not done in awhile, by piling different liquids on top of each other in a glass.  We tried it a couple of times with different things in different orders.  The kids definitely got that oil was the least dense and that the maple syrup was surprisingly dense.

Next, we did a fluids race.  I just set up an old pan with a starting line and a finish line.  Each kid got to pick one of his liquids to put a dollop on the start line and then I lifted the pan to see which one would run the fastest.  BalletBoy was disappointed because one of the times we did it, he tried toothpaste, which was the only thing that didn’t run at all.  It turned out it’s a colloid.  Oh well.

Next, we turned our attention to water.  We began with some notes and vocabulary words, such as condense, evaporate and water vapor.

The experiments were simple.  We froze water, then checked to see how it had gotten bigger.  We melted ice to see it change state.  We boiled water to turn it into vapor.  Then we “caught” the vapor and turned it into water on a cool glass and then by setting containers high above the steam coming out of the boiling pot.  We also checked on some evaporating water from a couple weeks back and found, excitingly, the water had completely evaporated.  Also, that our “salt flats” had formed and you could see their cubic shape very clearly.  We compared them with the pointy ones from the epsom salts again.

We finished by talking about all the things we’ve already learned about water and all the past experiments we did.  Some they didn’t remember very well, but others they did.  We referenced many of the experiments we did for temperature, floating and sinking, waves, and pressure last year.  Mushroom remembered that water conducts electricity (something the kids have tested with the Snap Circuits many times) and BalletBoy remembered about the water cycle that all water is connected.  They all remembered learning that water molecules cling together.  Overall, it was a nice ending to the lesson and nice to bring together a number of topics.

States of Matter

First of all, I updated the Science Without a Net link above to include this year’s posts and reflect a little more about what we’re doing.  It’s been getting a small but steady stream of hits on the blog, which is pleasing to me.  I hope that means people are making use of what we’re doing, using it as a springboard or borrowing it however you like.

We moved on to states of matter and enjoyed ourselves greatly in this lesson (perhaps because it involved a lot of destruction and a lot of chocolate).  The main ideas I wanted to convey were that matter has three “main” states that we refer to: solid, liquid and gas.  I also wanted them to understand what characterized each one.  I decided that we would focus on water and states of matter more next week, so I didn’t dwell too much on water yet.



This is such a straightforward topic that we didn’t use a huge number of books.  I found that the Let’s Read and Find Out title, What is the World Made Of? by Kathleen Zoehfeld was pretty sufficient.  If you’re looking for others, there’s a Q&A Science book called States of Matter.  Also, Rookie Read Aloud has a title called Solids, Liquids and Gases and we had out a set of three tiny easy readers called What is a Solid?, What is a Liquid? and What is a Gas? by Jennifer Boothroyd.  They were simple enough for even my slower reader to read with ease.

For experiment books, I had a few options out and found the book Young Discoverers: Solids and Liquids from Kingfisher to be useful.  We had a few more out as well, including an older title that I got a few ideas from, but I’ve embarrassingly lost my notes and can’t find them.  D’oh.  None of the books I looked at were stand out amazing though, so you’re not missing much.


There’s a huge number of great video resources on this topic.  First up there are some introductions.  Here’s a super quick video but with a nice visual on the structure of solids, liquids and gasses.  Here’s another one, a funky little video about states of matter and glass.  The video quizzes you as it goes along.  And here’s Brainpop’s video on States of Matter.  As always, Brainpop requires a subscription.

Now for more solid resources (see how I punned there?).  Bill Nye has an episode called Phases of Matter.  Here’s the intro and here’s the song (can you name the 90’s song it’s taking off on!).  Also exciting as I think it’s for the very last time this year (they don’t cover anything we’re covering!), Eureka! is here with two episodes on this topic.  First, we have Molecules in Solids and next, we have Molecules in Liquids.  Best of all though, They Might Be Giants have a song about states of matter:


We began with our notebooks and divided a page into three sections.  Then, everyone cut out pictures to illustrated solids, liquids and gases.  There were a lot of clouds and bits of blue sky in the gases section, but there were some interesting solids and liquids.  Continuing in that vein, everyone ran off to find examples of one solid, one liquid and one gas.  There were legos and sticks, juice and water, and several cupped hands holding air, plus one set of lungs filled with oxygen.  The best part was that Mushroom unexpectedly combined his finds.  He asked for help to get from the kitchen baking soda (a solid) and vinegar (a liquid).  Then, he combined them and made, as he put it, “some kind of a gas.”  But hey, he was right!  They do release carbon dioxide when combined.  I was a little blown away, let me tell you.

After that, we talked a little about solids.  There are lots of different types of solid materials, but we looked at a few of them – wood, plastic, and metal for example.  We talked about how solids don’t change shape and volume unless something changes them.  Well, that’s just an invitation, right?  So we all began working to change the solids.  We bent the metal jar ring, snapped a crayon, and squashed some modeling clay.  In the end, we couldn’t make a change on the wood block or the hard plastic play lettuce, so we talked about how to change them and a tool was suggested, so we went outside and smashed them with hammers.  The block was pretty easy.  Within a couple of bangs, we removed a small bit of it, thereby changing its volume and distressed it, changing its shape.  The hard plastic play lettuce was insane though, I must say.  It completely resisted our attempts, which just made the kids more determined to break at least a little off it.  I wish I had pictures, but supervising 4 boys and a hammer really didn’t allow me to take snapshots!  In the end, we managed to crack it and distress it, but we never got a piece off.

We talked then about how all the changes we had made were physical changes.  Not only that, none of them changed the state of the solid matter.  So I asked if we could change their state.  Immediately every kid knew how.  Burn it or heat it.  So out came the lighter (wielded only my yours truly) and we set fire to the block and melted the plastic, though each for just a moment.  Finally, the plastic saw a small change!  We talked a little about changes of state and how the plastic wanted to become a liquid but the wood did not.  However, the kids immediately surmised that the wood didn’t disappear when it burned away, it must turn into a gas.  Excellent.

We headed inside and went back to that snapped crayon.  We melted it in the microwave and watched it turn into liquid, then back into a solid.  I used that as a jumping off point to think about what applications melting then reforming substances had.  It took them a shockingly long time to get to the idea of molded materials like cast iron or plastic toys, but we got there eventually.  That made them think of Legos (which is only important because of what happened next).

I suggested that we melt and reform something more fun, like chocolate.  I had old molds all set to use, but before I could even get there, the kids immediately went to the idea that they wanted Lego molded chocolate.  So, that’s what we made.  We melted the solid chocolate into a liquid, then cooled it in a small pan filled with Legos.  It yielded a cool result that we broke into chucks and ate.

I had a million other activities planned for the day, including a bunch of things about liquids and viscosity and some more science journal things.  However, this was an enthusiastic day where we went with what the kids were into.  And who wouldn’t be into burning things and making Lego chocolate?  So I was happy with that.

Mmm…  Lego chocolate.

Salt and More

Sorry about the science delay.  I’ve just been busy.  I decided to give us an extra week looking at minerals and to focus especially on salt.  I wanted the kids to review the ideas we’d already covered about how elements combine to make minerals and minerals combine to make rocks.  I also wanted them to learn that salt is a mineral that we need and use every day.  I wanted them to see from the example of salt that different minerals have different properties that we can find useful in different ways.


For rocks and minerals, last week’s books were a good start, but we also found an older title, What is a Rock? by John Syrocki at the library.  This is a series from Benefic Press that also includes other titles we’ve checked out, such as What is Electricity?, but which I’ve not mentioned because most of them are outdated.  However, I really liked this one and the information was fine.  Like rocks themselves, the most basic information about rocks hasn’t changed too much in the last half a century.  We also took at look at Jump Into Science: Rocks and Minerals as well as the Let’s Read and Find Out title Let’s Go Rock Collecting.  Once we’ve finished with chemistry, we’re going to come back to rocks and minerals, so I didn’t feel too much pressure to get everything in this go around.

For the topic of salt, we had an amazing book, The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky.  This is a picture book version of a popular nonfiction title of the same name and author.  There have been a lot of good young adult editions of popular nonfiction books, but this one the first I had seen to be transmitted to picture book.  However, it worked so well!  The book is much more focused on the history of the topic, but it’s still a great read and when else would you do it but while studying minerals?  From Sea to Salt by Robin Lerner is intended for younger kids, but we didn’t even end up reading it because I liked the Kurlansky book so much.


I’m afraid we’ve been cheating on our free resources more and more since I got Discovery Streaming and BrainPop.  In addition to the videos we did last week about minerals, we did the BrainPop video about salt this week.  Also, we watched this nice ten minute video called Geologist’s Notebook from Discovery Streaming.  It was very schooly, but also very succinct.  For one more on rocks and minerals, try this short but nice one about the differences on Youtube.

For salt, there’s a great episode of How Stuff Works about salt.  You can find it on Discovery Streaming here.  Or you can watch this clip about salt mines from the episode.  Or this one from National Geographic embedded below:


For activities, we began by just thinking about salt.  I gave the kids a little pile and let them touch it.  BalletBoy immediately consumed his whole pile and asked for more.  The child has a total salt addiction that I had no idea was even there.  Next, we did some of the simplest experiments you can with salt.  We watched it soak up water and then we watched it melt ice.  Well, we didn’t exactly watch that part, we set it up, watched a short video, then observed, which is what they’re doing in the picture below.  We also all observed how dry our hands felt after touching the salt so much.

Next, we set up an experiment from Janice Van Cleave’s Earth Science for Every Kid where you mix a cup of water and three tablespoons of salt then allow the water to evaporate to form what are basically salt flats.  It can take up to three weeks, so we’re not done.  It’s currently just a bowl sitting on a shelf.  I’ll let you know how it comes out.  The connection I hoped to make was between the chemical formula and the shape we see after dissolving the water and evaporating the salt.

A much quicker version, which will yield different results because the crystals aren’t square like salt, can be done with Epsom salts.  They’re available pretty cheaply in the drug store, in case you, like me, don’t just keep them around.  For this experiment, mix a cup of water and three tablespoons of the salts.  However, you won’t need that much.  You just need a thin layer poured over a piece of black or dark construction paper inside a small, flat-bottomed container.  I used the lid from our Thinking Putty, but a jar lid would be fine.  By the next day, the water has evaporated and left the crystals.  Be sure to flip up the black paper because the crystals on ours were much cooler underneath than on top.  We talked about how this had a different chemical formula.

Finally, mostly because the kids begged and begged, we set up to make rock candy.  Obviously, this isn’t salt, it’s sugar!  We talked a little about crystals and their formation, but I didn’t dwell too much on this, honestly.  We followed the directions here and I’m hoping that there’s rock candy growing in those murky jars that the kids overused food coloring on.  I’m really hoping.

ETA:  I wrote this post a couple days ago and we’ve since checked the rock candy.  No crystal growth!  Drat!  We’ll have to try it again.


Well, this was a funny science week.  I had to host our Monday co-op and had my mom in town, all of which conspired to keep me from really getting focused on getting ready, so this will be a bit of a bare post.  We’ll probably revisit this topic a little (in fact, I know we will).  For now, all I wanted the kids to get out of it was two very basic ideas.  The earth is made of elements and we can see them in rocks.


There are so many books about rocks and minerals that I almost didn’t bother listing anything.  They’re all relatively good.  Some are geared toward beautiful photos and illustrations, along with a nice text, like the Smithsonian’s Rock and Gem.  Others are field guides, like the Peterson one you see above that we had.  There are a number of good independent reader books at all levels about rocks, the one above is a longer one, but there are a dozen others I saw.  The Basher book on this subject is fun, as always.  I especially liked that the Basher book clearly listen the chemical composition and hardness of each one for which it was appropriate.

One book we had which was more poetic than scientific, but which I found enjoyable to read aloud was the picture book If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian.  Each page is a little photo of a child and a rock.  The rocks are things like “crossing rocks” for crossing a stream or “hiding rocks” for rocks with bugs hiding beneath them.  It was a sweet book and a balance to all the classification stuff we used above.  Older kids probably wouldn’t enjoy it, but we did.


Well, I don’t have a lot to offer you right now.  All we watched was the BrainPop entry on mineral identification.  However, we’ll be hitting this topic again, so if you’re interested, I’ll have more stuff later.  I just need to get to the organization stage.


I considered doing some activities with salt and even sugar.  I even went out and bought Epsom Salts.  However, after a long stretch of unseasonably cold, rainy weather, the sun came out for science, so I felt it was a crime to stay inside and I headed out instead to the creek down the road.

We collected rocks, compared rocks, looked for interesting rocks and found all kinds of rocks.  Then, I broke out a mineral testing kit much like the one described here.  The kids loved testing the hardness of their things.  Rocks that scratched the knife were especially exciting and our penny was quite marred by the end.  However, the most exciting moment came when Mushroom found a rock he described as a “chalk rock.”  Could it be chalk?  The hardness was right.  It fit the description.  Then we saw chalk had calcite.  We dropped a little vinegar on it and waited for a reaction.  This was perfect as a follow up to our study of molecules.  The acid in the vinegar breaks the molecules down, which causes a fizz.  After an intense minute of watching, little bubbles began to form.  It was chalk!

In addition, we found rocks we are pretty sure were sandstone, granite and mica.  Actually, I am sure that was mica.  Talk about cleavage!

After testing, researching and comparing, we drew the rocks and recorded our observations in our journals.

Oh, and did I mention that it was just nice to be playing at the creek.  A brand new tree had been uprooted by the rain and was fun to walk across.


Time for another week of science.  This week, building on the week before, we’re looking at the elements and the periodic table.  From this week, I wanted the kids to understand that the structure of the atom (how many protons it has) determines how it behaves and that the periodic table organizes the elements.  Some of the things we read and watched talked about the number of electrons helping determine which elements were more reactive and which ones combine, but I thought it was a little over their heads.  Mostly, I wanted them to understand that most things around us are made of combinations of elements.



This week offered better book options than last week.  First up, there’s a beautiful book, intended for adults, called simply The Elements by Theodore Gray.  In case you can’t find the book, this website will give you the gist of it, though the book is worth seeing as well for more depth.  I pretty much never buy posters, but I thought the one based on the book was so cool, that I sprung for it from Home Science Tools.  Another great take on elements is the Basher Science book The Periodic Table: Elements with Style.  The Basher books all come with posters, so this one has the periodic table illustrated with the cartoony element characters from the book.  I like the writing style from this one a great deal.  Each element brags about their properties.  If you’re a flashcard sort of family (we’re not, but maybe you are!) the Basher books are also available as flashcards.

There were several other sets of books for the elements and the periodic table at our library, but these were the best by far.  However, we also made use of The Elements: What You Really Want to Know by Ron Miller.  As I looked for an image to grab of that one, I discovered a new one that’s not out yet that looked like a promising resource as well called Scholastic Discover More: The Elements.


The elements offers up another week of some wonderful online videos.  There’s not a Bill Nye, Eureka or Magic School Bus episode for this topic specifically, but a number of musical options abound.  I have to tell you that I was a bit shocked to find out just how many chemistry songs there are out there.  Do chemistry students secretly wish they were music majors?  I’m not linking most of them, so if you’re interested, I’ll let you go crazy finding them.  But a few were worthwhile.  First of all, I have no idea why one would want to memorize all the elements, but if you did, this song, which abounds in versions all over Youtube, would probably be pretty valuable.  You can even see Daniel Radcliffe sing it…  for some reason.  And, if you prefer your elements in rap, you can find that too (it’s in the second half of the video).  Of course, nothing is as awesome as They Might Be Giants.  Honestly, Here Comes Science might now be above Flood and Apollo 18 in the hierarchy of TMBG albums for me now.  And this song might be the best one on it.

Of course, if you’re dying for a video about every element, you can find that unmusically as well.  The Periodic Table of Videos is a neat resource and each little video tells a story.  The host has a hairdo that screams “mad scientist,” which hopefully someone’s kids will appreciate.  For our best, most basic introduction, we watched another BrainPop offering on the periodic table.  You’ll need a subscription to see that one.


We started with some review, looking at various materials and thinking about how they’re made of molecules.  I did the activity I meant to do last week, spraying some icky smelly stuff and thinking about how the molecules disperse through the air.  Then we touched oil and soap and thought about what makes the molecules slippery.

Before I can talk about the elements, I have to start by suggesting a number of sites for printables.  By far the best printable periodic tables for elementary school are the two found here.  One has cute cartoon pictures with a one or two word explanation of where to find the element.  The other has a list of uses and materials made with the element.  These were so well done in bringing the material to a young audience, I was willing to ignore the blatant use of comic sans.  For more general periodic tables, this site has a huge number of options appropriate to little elementary chemists through college students.

We used a very simple periodic table to then do some coloring.  I had them color in the different sections – nonmetals, metal and semi-metals (keeping it simple).  We took a couple of notes and taped that into our journals.

Then we did the main activity for the day.  I made a big, blank periodic table by folding paper into four rectangles and labeling each then arranging them on the table.  It did take a little more paper than I probably should have used.  Still, it paid off.  The kids made a goal of finding 20 things to represent 20 elements.  I gave them the books mentioned above for research and let them run all over the house.  It took them quite awhile (more than half an hour!) but they kept at it and found things like calcium vitamins, copper cookie cutters, zinc pennies, and other things like a CD, which according to one of the books contains tellurium (who knew?) and some brand new Thinking Putty, which contains boron.

There were also some good discussions, like about the balloon they found.  Someone suggested it be put on helium, but it wasn’t a helium balloon, which they figured out pretty quickly.  Then there was a lightbulb moment when they realized that if someone blew it up, it contained carbon dioxide, and that must include carbon, right?  So they put it on carbon (though it was later replaced with baking soda that didn’t keep getting blown away by drafts).  There they are below with the widest picture I could manage of the items representing the elements they found.  You can probably notice the can (tin), the pie server (silver), the onion (it has sulfur!), and the bleach spray (chlorine).


Hey, you guys!  Science is back!  We did a bit of science over the summer, mostly reading books, being out in nature, and letting the everyday be our guide.  We had an especially excellent trip to Fernbank Natural History Museum in Atlanta where we saw a dinosaur so big that it could totally have stomped any of the dinos in the Smithsonian.  But now it’s time to turn our minds to a more organized approach, so here we go.  In case you’re curious, this year will be mostly earth science with a little chemistry thrown in.  You can find the list here.

For this topic, I really wanted the kids to understand that atoms are the basic building blocks of absolutely everything.  I wanted them to learn the parts of an atom.  I wanted them to understand that molecules are combinations of atoms.  Finally, I wanted to show them that atoms aren’t as simple as we like to make them seem.  They’re full of empty space and things at that level don’t behave the way things do in what we think of as the normal world.



Our first topic is atoms and molecules.  For a topic so basic, there’s a surprising lack of books about it for children.  There are a few series books out there, and so many chemistry experiment books that you could easily stack them to the ceiling.  However, there weren’t a lot of good introductory books for elementary school students.  We had one, from the 1960’s, called Biography of an Atom which had the sort of information I wanted, but which was obviously a bit out of date.  We also had two longer series books, Splitting the Atom by Katie Parker and Atomic Universe: The Quest to Discover Radioactivity by Kate Boehm Jerome.  Both were a little too detailed for this age and the latter book was focused more on radioactivity and X-rays.  There is a Rookie Read Aloud Science book about atoms.  However, the book I wish I could have gotten in time was The Adventures of Adam the Atom by Casey Waid.  That book looked perfect for this age group, but none of the libraries had it.  Overall, we didn’t find just what I wanted.

For experiment books, I drew ideas from Janice Van Cleave’s Molecules and the book Adventures with Atoms and Molecules by Robert Mebane.  Both had a lot of general chemistry experiment ideas, but this is a topic you have to help kids connect the dots.  After all, they can’t see the atoms and molecules.


Luckily there are plenty of videos for atoms and molecules.  First of all, there’s our two standards.  Bill Nye gives up the episode “Atoms” and The Magic School Bus gives us the episode “The Magic School Bus Meets Molly Cule.”  Plus, there’s two Eureka episodes for this topic.  First, there’s one on atoms, which I embedded below.  Next, there’s another on elections.  Both refer to atoms as “round” but otherwise seemed accurate, despite their age.

There were also a number of other good videos for atoms.  There’s this one from Khan Academy, which was a little too long for us, but probably about right for older kids (and grown ups!).  It starts by telling you that with chemistry you get to start with the most philosophically interesting thing, which pretty much sums out what I like about Khan Academy’s approach as well as studying atoms.  A much simpler introduction is this Ignite Learning video.  And this is an amusing little song about the history of the atom.  We also have a new Brainpop subscription that we got for a good deal and the older kids’ site has a whole section on matter with a number of good videos for this unit, such as this one about the atom.  You’ll need a subscription to see that one.

Below is one more that I really loved, from NOVA, which basically tears apart all your science textbook ideas about how to represent an atom.  I thought it was perfect.  And here’s a quick little excerpt from a longer documentary that explains the scale of atoms and might make you a little disturbed about just how much empty space we’re all made of.


We have brand new science notebooks, so order of business number one was to decorate them and put names on them.  For BalletBoy and Mushroom, we’re going to be printing out their narrations and taping or pasting them into the notebook.  Doing narrations about science is a new thing for us this year and I can see that it’s a challenge for the kids, but I’m excited to make it work.

I already wrote a couple of weeks ago about the quandary I faced with atomic models.  However, I wanted to start with some simple notes, so the kids copied a model of an atom.  We drew them for the sake of vocabulary, essentially.  However, at the end of our science time, I asked the kids to say what was wrong with the drawings and we finished by putting big cross outs on them.  You can see Mushroom’s notes and model with BalletBoy’s taped in narrations below.

It’s easy to see that you, your toys, your house and all the (seemingly!) solid objects around you are made of something, but I thought it was worthwhile to think about how air is also made of molecules and atoms, so we did a version of this experiment where you blow up a balloon and weight it on a balance with an balloon that’s not blown up.

Next, we explored some behavior that molecules help explain.  Each kid picked out an object that was made of atoms (they laughed about that command, which I hope means they get it) and we looked at it and noticed how different they are.  We talked about how the structure of the molecules explains why the fork is hard and the eraser was rubbery.  Next,  we made water flow sideways to think about how molecules like to cling together.  This is one of the cooler experiments I’ve done.  It had both a wow factor and a learning objective that the kids really seemed to get.  When I asked if it would work with a dry string, they immediately saw that it wouldn’t because the water would have no other water molecules to cling to.  One more thing I had planned was to spray perfume to see how molecules move and disperse, but I forgot to do it.  Next week!

Finally, we explored the space between molecules by doing an experiment with salt and water.  We filled a glass with water to the brim.  Then, we slowly added salt until the water overflowed.  The kids really got into this one.  You could see that a lot more salt fit inside the glass than seemed possible.  The reason is that the salt dissolves so that the salt molecules fit in between the water molecules.  This experiment came from the Janice VanCleave book and it had an additional suggestion to illustrate the idea by combining a glass filled with marbles (to illustrate the water molecules) with a glass filled with salt.  Each glass is full, but together they still only fill one glass.  This illustration really helped the kids get the concept.  At first, they didn’t know how to explain why the salt “fit” inside the water.  But after seeing the demonstration with the marbles, they get it immediately and Mushroom then made the connection that atoms are also made mostly of empty space, which is when we went back and marked out our original atom drawings.