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When I first learned about the You Be The Chemist® (YBTC) program, I couldn’t wait to try out activities to share real-world science connections with my students. In fact, my biggest concern was that that I might not be able to find a place for it in our very busy and structured curriculum.

Fortunately, with some juggling and creative planning, I started using YBTC activities with my 5th graders six years ago, and it’s become a very popular and successful part of my lesson plan. It’s helped me share my love of science — and at the same time, introduce measurement, real-world science connections, and an interest in chemistry to my young students.

You Be The Chemist® is offered by the Chemical Educational Foundation (CEF), a national organization committed to enhancing science education with activities geared to K-8 students. The program emphasizes the role of chemistry in all of the sciences and in our daily lives. Each lesson has a mathematical connection with measurement and accuracy, a research connection that teaches students chemistry vocabulary, and a real-world application where students discover how scientists in different fields use the skills that the students use in that lesson. You can learn more at the CEF website.

Since I started integrating YBTC materials and activities into my teaching, I’ve turned my Friday science lessons into “Fun Science Fridays.” Students work through the experimental procedure of a YBTC activity (or other STEM activity), and then finish the related assignments the following Monday. It’s a great way to end the week on a high note, and students look forward to what the new chemistry activity will be. Really, what can beat hearing your class asking if they can “do science now?”

After a couple of years of working with the activities, I have chosen some favorites — which I share below, along some notes about how I’ve modified them. You can find all of these at You Be The Chemist® Activity Guides. You will need to register before you can see them.

Goofy Putty

This is the first activity I tried, and it has become a favorite of my students. It’s like making homemade Silly Putty. In fact, I have a couple examples of Silly Putty that I keep in my room just to show my students what the commercial version looks like. For this version, you mix a borax solution with glue. When you shop for your materials, look for borax in the laundry soap section. It’s usually on the bottom shelf. I had to ask for it the first time I made this. The sales clerk had no idea what I was looking for!

Some helpful hints: Set out the borax in cups with plastic spoons already placed next to or in the cups. This will make it easier for multiple groups to access it. I also use individual-sized bottles for the glue. This makes it easier for the students to measure, and it shouldn’t come out too fast as may be the case with a larger gallon-size bottle. I set this up away from the borax to avoid congestion at the material sites. You’ll also need water for this activity. I keep several cups filled near the sink so that more groups have access.

Science Concepts in the Mix!

  • Measurement
  • Mixtures
  • Solutions
  • Physical changes
  • Chemical reactions
  • Polymers

Download the Goofy Putty Activity Guide in PDF. Find the complete set of activity guides on the You Be The Chemist® website.

As we work through our activities, my students like to ask, “What if I tried this or that material instead?” I encourage them to see what will happen if they explore various alternatives (but I remind them they have to clean up after their discoveries!) Their favorite modifications to this activity are to add food coloring, mix colors, change the amounts and ratios of the borax/glue mixture, see how long it takes to make it perfectly smooth by simply playing with it, freezing it, and seeing how long it will last in a zip-closure bag.

All of the materials are easily found in your local grocery store, so students can replicate the activity at home as many times as their parents will allow! As with any of the YBTC activities, the hands-on part of the activity is the students’ favorite. Students love taking it to the next level and making it their own. It’s the perfect place to introduce the scientific method and experimental design in a way that’s relevant and easy to understand.

Goldenrod Detector

Identifying acids and bases by color change on goldenrod paper. (Credit: Rebecca Field)

Science Concepts in the Mix!

  • Acids and bases
  • Indicators
  • The pH scale

You won’t find this activity online. It’s in the original book I received when I first started YBTC. Students test to see if household items are acids or bases. This activity can be easy to set up if you purchase Goldenrod Paper on the Educational Innovations, Inc. website.

Alternatively, you can make your own goldenrod-colored copy paper, which requires just a little more work. All you need is the cooking spice turmeric and hot water. I boil the water and then add the entire jar (63 grams) of turmeric. My students love this activity, so I make enough papers for each student, plus some back-up papers in case they make a mistake.

You’ll need a large space where you can let the papers dry. I use my garage, placing some newspapers down ahead of time to prevent the floor from getting stained. I dip the paper in the turmeric solution and then lay it out on the newspaper to dry overnight. I enlist the aid of my own children when making the paper. They’re my guinea pigs for everything! (By the way, you can find these directions on the Educational Innovations website.)

The purpose of the goldenrod paper is to identify acids and bases. The paper will turn red when you apply a base to it, and it will remain the same goldenrod color when in contact with an acid. If you apply an acid on top the same spot where you had applied the base (and vice versa), it will turn the paper back to the goldenrod color.

You’ll need a variety of household acids and bases to experiment with — and lots of cotton swabs. I use vinegar, lemon and orange juices, pop (or carbonated soft drinks), ammonia, baking soda, milk of magnesia, bleach, and water.

Remember to be safe! For example, don’t keep the bleach right next to the ammonia, but still try to keep them both near you so that you can monitor their use. Also, use small amounts of the bleach and ammonia materials, be prepared in case of a spill, and remind students to not let the solutions touch their clothing or skin.

I have modified this activity by testing other household items, which include bottled water, tap water from our classroom sink, my coffee, and salt water. The students like to use a full sheet of homemade goldenrod paper so they can label their samples. Then we discuss what they know about acids and bases, and how that relates to the real world.

Rubber Eggs

Science Concepts in the Mix!

  • Scientific inquiry
  • Elements and compounds
  • Mixtures
  • Chemical reactions
  • Chemical change
  • Food chemistry
  • Acids and bases

Your room will smell like pickles when you’re done with this one! Fortunately, I like that smell. It’s important to give this experiment three to five days to work. I have one raw egg and one hard-boiled egg for each pair of students. We set up on Monday by putting both eggs into a mason jar filled with vinegar. Then each day the students make observations. By Friday, I know the experiment is ready to go. Cover the students’ desks with newspaper for easy clean-up. Remind them when they clean up to not put the eggs in the sink — only the vinegar.

This experiment amazes them! Over the five days, students will observe that both eggs have bubbles surrounding them, they seem to expand in size, and a white residue forms around the inner surface of the jar and the eggs. They can’t believe the difference between the raw and the hard-boiled eggs when they remove them from the jars.

Warning! The raw eggs look rubbery — but if squeezed, will create a big mess. Yes, I learned this the hard way. After your students have had time to feel the differences, you can discuss chemical reactions and the role of calcium in our bodies. I haven’t modified this experiment beyond making it go the full five days and letting the students explore the textures of the two eggs. We have discussed pickling and fermenting eggs, and why people pickle and ferment food in the first place.

Milk Rainbow

This activity is amazing to watch happen, and that is what hooks students! You need whole milk, food coloring, dishwashing soap, and cotton swabs. Have buckets ready for clean up if you don’t want to pour the milk down your sink (or if you don’t have a sink). Remind students to not fill the milk up to the top, or they’ll spill some when they’re walking back to their seat. I use bowls instead of plates to prevent the mess, and direct my students to fill the bowls no more than half-way.

The other ways I modify this activity are to have different kinds of milk (skim, 1%, 2%, buttermilk, and chocolate milk) on hand so my class can experiment with the different amounts of fat in the milk. These are great ways to promote scientific inquiry and the scientific method. Students also like to make art with the food coloring. If you are keeping a class Facebook page, you can document each piece of student art. This activity produces great photo opportunities!

Science Concepts in the Mix!

  • Scientific inquiry
  • States of matter
  • Properties of matter
  • Attractive forces (surface tension)
  • Mixtures

Download the Milk Rainbow Activity Guide in PDF. Find the complete set of activity guides on the You Be The Chemist® website.

Check out the YouTube video demonstration of Milk Rainbow below. You can find other demonstrations on the Chemical Education Foundation YBTC YouTube Channel.

The Moving Molecule Stomp

I have to include this activity as the easiest and least messy of all the ones I do. Hand-pick students to model molecules. They clump together to be solids, make an orderly shape to show a crystalline solid, move around together in a clump to show a liquid, and scatter to show a gas. Pick your students wisely so that you don’t have a discipline issue.

I add to this one by showing another example of solids, liquids, and gases using petri dishes and BB pellets. You can also challenge students to bring in examples or pictures of each and then sort the examples into their correct category. If you have the students work in groups, you can have them put their pictures or examples in the center. Have them sort the examples into solid, liquid, and gas groups, much like you would do a card sort. You can use this as an introduction activity to states of matter, or as a refresher.

Science Concepts in the Mix!

  • Scientific inquiry
  • States of matter
  • Properties of matter
  • Physical changes
  • Energy

Some closing thoughts

Make sure you do any experiment all the way through by yourself before you try it with your students. You want to know how it should turn out and what issues you might need to address before they happen. Have more than enough materials on hand for everyone to try the experiment themselves (or at least with a partner) and in case anyone makes a mistake. Know where you’re going to set up your supplies to prevent a log-jam when the students are getting what they need. Have access to technology or dictionaries for the students who finish early, so they can start on the worksheet that goes with each lesson. Have plenty of cleaning wipes and paper towels to make clean-up easier. And, don’t worry about not knowing all of the answers. That’s what Google is for!

My advice to you is to not be afraid of trying a chemistry lesson in your elementary classroom. You will love how engaged the students are in the lesson. Everyone will be on task. They will go home and tell their parents what they did in science. You will be covering measurement, research, real-world applications, content vocabulary, and cooperative learning. Students will beg you to do more science activities. It’s fun, messy, and wonderful learning!