We often think learning chemistry requires complicated and sophisticated equipment. This way of thinking happens to teachers and families alike. In fact, I have fell trapped of that misconception too. As parents and teachers, we may even feel guilty because we don’t have money or resources for children to learn chemistry. What if I told you that you (and I) have so much chemistry equipment already? If your kitchen is fully stocked, you then probably have a significant amount of materials to guide children to learn chemistry. In this blog post, I walk you through one ‘simple’ chemistry experiment that can be used with all ages and modified to meet children where they are in their science learning.
Let’s Start by Defining, What is chemistry?
Chemistry is a core subject in science. Although it is often mistakenly described as the mixing of chemicals. It is in fact, a broad science field that pursues understanding the characteristics, interactions, and potential of substances, materials, and living organisms. In other words, a chemist can investigate the microscopic properties of carbon where as another chemist might quantify carbon in dirt, and yet another scientist could test how carbon can clean water. My point being, like other science fields, chemistry is a broad field with many opportunities to explore. Since the definition of chemistry is broad and diverse, children should also be exposed to learning that is varied and authentically honors chemists’ work.
In the following sections of this post, I walk you though a series of ideas on how to use common food items and apples to teach about variables, systematic experimentation, macroscopic and microscopic properties of substances, and how biology content can be easily incorporated into a chemistry lesson. Buckle up, we are going to have some fun with children!
From Cooking to Science Lesson
In a recent Chillax Cooking blog post, I shared my family’s love for applesauce. Specifically, the way my daughters and I make and store it. But since I am always attempting to interconnect our activities it led me to extend the experience to a science activity. Read the blog post, it is a great snack alternative and so easy to make.
Apples are also great for doing and learning chemistry. You can also check other chemistry teaching ideas like playdough and glow in the dark slime. But I share many more ideas in the website! You can also purchase ready made kits in my affiliated Montessori Services Stores. You will find AMAZING resources for your children!
Instead of suggesting specifics by age, in this activity I make suggestions based on a progression of learning that can be used at any grade, based on children’s interests and abilities. I like to think of this progression as slowly adding scientific practices in each level. You can also use these gradient in other lessons as well.
What are Experimental Variables?
You probably learned about these in school but if you are not a scientist as a trade, it is likely that it went to the “back burner.” So lets review. Experimental variables are the elements of an experiment that we control and change in order to answer a testable (what I call, focus) question. Specifically, there are three kinds of variables:
Independent Variables: are the elements in the experiment that are varied and directly answers the research question.
Dependent Variables: are the elements that we measure during the experiment.
Controlled Variables: are the elements that we keep the same throughout the experiment.
We will be using these definitions as we move through the lesson levels.
Then What? Get Some Apples and Experiment
Go to the grocery store and buy a variety of apples. I suggest getting as many different apples as possible. For example, you can purchase Gala, Fuji, and Golden Delicious. Then, put the apples on a tray or on a working table. Prompt children to notice external, macroscopic, characteristics of the apples. You can ask questions such as,
- What do you notice about the apples?
- Do all these apples look the same?
- What are some similarities and differences?
- What questions could we ask about these apples?
- How would a scientist try to answer these questions?
Once the children asks good questions you can conclude the lesson by,
- going to the library and reading about apples
- visiting an apple orchard
- cooking applesauce
- or doing anything else that will continue to spark interest in apples
In this level, we invite children to pursue a testable question. That is, find a way to answer a question through experimentation; not just reading a book. This testable question can be posed by the child or offered by the adult. For example, one great question for this level is investigating, Do all apples taste the same?
Take a sample of a variety of apples and slice them. Then, as the adult, place each apple slice in a container and label the container. The goal is to have a blind test. The child can then identify the slice that they just eat with the matching apple. Invite your child to use this recording sheet to keep track of their thinking and tasting. Finally, invite them to answer the question.
In this level, we want to guide children to be able to ask a good question, identify experimental variables, collect data, and make a scientific claim based on the data. Possible for students in elementary school? Absolutely!
Depending on where your children are, as the adult, you could do one or two rounds of this level. For example, the first time it can be fully structured and the second time independently. I tend to ask the child what they prefer. Because the goal of this blog post is to make a concrete suggestion to families, I detail a structured recommendation.
Use an apple slicer or knife and slice an apple into 4-8 slices. Then, propose to your child(ren) that together you will be systematically determining the *best* way to preserve apples’ appearance once sliced. Start by asking questions that elicit children’s ideas. Questions like,
- Have you noticed what happens to the apple slices when we put them in the refrigerator or leave them sitting on the kitchen counter?
- Do you think it is possible to put something on the slice that will preserve the color but won’t make the apple taste bad?
- How long could we preserve these apples before they go bad?
Be genuine. Use this opportunity to learn how to better preserve food and produce less waste. After this conversation, it is time for some research. What do we already know about preserving apples? Go to your local library and help children research. Invite your child to take good research notes. Here is one suggestion that might useful to your family.
Once your child has some prior knowledge, it is time to experiment. Guide your child through the steps of a systematic experiment: asking a focus/research question, predicting, describing the test procedure, collecting data, analyzing the data, and making a scientific claim. Here is a FREE record keeping sheet that may structure learning.
As you further support children in their scientific endeavors, here is a summary of the variables for your reference:
- Independent variable: juices used
- Dependent variables: color change and time
- Controlled variables: apple variety (just one) and slice size (the same across)
Other aspects that ensure a systematic study of the question is thinking about observing changes (or not) at the same time of the day. And, keeping the experiment in the same placement throughout the duration. In addition, when the data collection is finished make sure children have an opportunity to discuss the results with others. Such opportunities will allow them to make sense of what they observed. Finally, invite your child to answer the testable/focus question in a complete sentence.
Repeat level three but this time add a component of reporting the findings. Here are some suggestions that have been favorably accepted by my own children.
- Making and editing a video that then is shared with family and friends.
- Writing an article for the local newspaper.
- A series of pictures that then are shared in social groups.
We have also done more traditional projects such as writing a scientific essay and a poster board.
Extending the Learning
Examining Apples Under a Microscope
This particular chemistry activity can easily connect to deeper learning about the microscopic characteristics of apples. For example, a child can then examine microscopically the variety of apples used. Are there any differences when a sliver of an apple is observed under a microscope? I honestly don’t know the answer but as I was writing this post I became curious. Now you know how I will be spending my time in the next few days. Don’t have a microscope at home? Your family can get one portable microscope for as low as $9.99. Cool, right?
How We Taste Things
Human’s tongues are amazing at detecting different flavors. According to researchers, we have a series of receptors or cells in our mouth that allows us to send information to our peripheral neurons. These signals are then decoded by parts of the brain and labeled as pleasant, salty, sweet, bitter, etc. Although the decoding is similar to all humans our physiological associations to these flavors are based on cultural context. Hence, what might be a delicious apple to someone it may be an unpleasant taste to someone else.
Try this chemistry activity at home and let me know how your children like doing chemistry!