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Homeschool Chemistry 101 – Day 1

March 8, 2014

Introduction to Chemistry

By Daniel H. Vestal, AmeriCorps Museum Investigate Lab Educator

Wednesday, March 5, 2014, marked the beginning of the four-part Chemistry series entitled, “Whiz, Bang, Ewww!”  A total of 20 homeschooled students began their class by getting individually fitted for lab coats and goggles. Some of the topics covered were volumetrics, density, siphoning, states of matter, and chemical versus physical changes.

Chemistry was lead by Museum staff educator, Bob Alderink, with assistance from myself, AmeriCorps member Daniel Vestal. The students got to meet two chemists, Dr. Holly Schiltz and PhD student Katey Huston, who share a passion for science and volunteer their time assisting in the Natural World Investigate lab.

During the first half of class we covered laboratory glassware (beakers, graduated cylinders, Erlenmeyer flasks, volumetric flasks, pipettes, and test tubes) and their different uses. We learned how to read a meniscus, the curved upper surface of a liquid column. We briefly covered states of matter like solids, liquids, and gases.

In scientific disciplines, such as chemistry, researchers most commonly use the metric system because it is universally used around the globe, and in my opinion easier to convert among measurements. Students explored density using multi-colored fresh and salt water. To create the salt water they crushed samples of rock salt with mortars and pestles, and then mixed the crushed rock salt with red food color and water. Using pipettes, they were then able to distribute the salt water into their test tubes.

Father Helping Son

Father helping son.

They also transferred blue fresh water (carefully) into the half-filled red test tubes. Students witnessed the difference in densities of the two liquids. Salt water, being denser, remained on the bottom while less dense fresh water floated on top. Then to confirm the results, students covered the test tubes with their fingers and inverted the tubes, only to see the two liquids immediately mix and turn purple! Another water experiment had them siphoning yellow-colored water into a beaker that contained red food coloring, which then changed into orange (sort of).

Two future chemists siphoning liquids.

Two future chemists siphoning liquids.

After all the water experiments were finished, these enthusiastic young chemists learned states of matter, atoms, and even used beans to create an “element”. They discovered the anatomy of an atom: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons are positively charged, neutrons are neutral, electrons are negatively charged, and the protons and neutrons together make up the nucleus while the electrons “zip” around the nucleus. Concerning atoms, the students were introduced to the periodic table of elements. They learned that each element displayed was identifiable by its atomic number. The atomic number refers to the number of protons in an atom while the atomic mass is the number of protons and neutrons combined. During the bean activity, homeschoolers used black beans as protons, white beans as neutrons, and lentils as the electrons to create their own atom/element from the periodic table. Once they built their atoms, fellow classmates took turns guessing which element they had created. The climax of the class came near the end, when chemical and physical changes were discussed.

“Chemical versus physical” was a hit; one demonstration that really lit up students’ eyes was when propane bubbles (in a soapy pan) were set ablaze in a flash. Continuing the show, attendees received balloons filled with baking soda and flasks filled with vinegar… then they mixed the two together. It blew their minds, besides inflating the balloon with carbon dioxide.

The grand finale was electric!  The students gathered in the back room, and the lights were darkened. Then with inflated balloons, students rubbed the balloons against their hair to create static, a negative charge on the balloon. Just witnessing the hairs standing up on their heads was funny sight to see. Once the room darkened, they held compact fluorescent light bulbs in one hand and touched the negatively charged balloon against the bulb. It looked like large fireflies setting off their abdomens in harmony. Why did this happen?  The electrons from the balloon excited the gas in the bulb. The atoms in the gas reacted to this influx of energy to create an illuminating discharge for a millisecond.

This introductory experience to chemistry was an equation perfectly balanced with part fun and part hands-on learning, making a concoction these young scientists will never forget!

Future chemists.

Future chemists.

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