Tag Archives: science experiments

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.

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.


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.