Category Archives: Science Experiments

Science and Cupcakes

I wonder sometimes if people realize the incredible wonder of everyday science. . . . .  things we do every day, things we see, things we touch, things we eat. . . . you know, like cupcakes.

Cupcakes are science.  Without science there would be no cupcakes.  Imagine a world without cupcakes.  It would be bleak.  We need science so we can have cupcakes.

Without science, there would be no cupcakes.
Without science, there would be no cupcakes.

Cupcakes are not a single entity, you know.  Cupcakes are a combination of several things, and it is the combination that creates cupcakes.  It’s chemistry.  Kitchen science is chemistry.  It’s other kinds of sciences as well, but it’s mostly chemistry.

In a lab, we add different things together to create reactions, and to create new things which would not exist were it not for the COMBINATION of various other things.

Before you begin this experiment, you need to anticipate the receptacle that will induce the chemical reaction needed.  For this experiment, you need to preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  And then you need to begin mixing the single ingredients together to create a new whole.

With cupcakes, we need flour.  Three cups of flour.

Three cups of white flour are needed for this experiment.
Three cups of white flour are needed for this experiment.

Put the flour in a  medium-size bowl.  Kitchen science – chemistry – requires specific kinds of containers; test tubes are too small, so you’ll need a couple of bowls.  You’ll also need a cupcake pan and some paper liners.

In that medium bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder and salt.  They’re chemicals, too.

Salt is, chemically, a combination of sodium and chloride.  Baking powder is a combination of saleratus and cream of tartar.
Salt is, chemically, a combination of sodium and chloride. Baking powder is a combination of saleratus and cream of tartar.

Ma Ingalls, in The Long Winter, was glad to finally, after months of near starvation, get some supplies that enabled her to cook good meals once again.  Now that I have cream of tartar and plenty of saleratus, I shall make a cake.”   Which is what we’re doing right now, only we’re putting the batter in cupcake pans, and we don’t have to make our own baking powder, which is what Ma was doing with the saleratus and cream of tartar.

In a separate, larger bowl, cream the butter. Gradually add the sugar, creaming until light and fluffy.  (Creaming, in kitchen science, means softening and blending things with the curved side of a large spoon.  You can also do this with a mixer, but that’s not as much fun.) Add the eggs to this bowl.  Blend thoroughly.

eggs, butter, sugar

Add the milk and vanilla to the mixture in the large bowl.  We use vanilla extract in baking, but let’s not forget where that vanilla extract comes from.

See that orchid?  That's where vanilla comes from. It smells wonderful, doesn't it; almost like a. . . . flower.
See that orchid? That’s where vanilla comes from. It smells wonderful, doesn’t it; almost like a. . . . flower.

Blend the vanilla and milk with the mixture in the large bowl; be sure you mix the ingredients thoroughly.  Proper mixing is important in chemistry.

Now start adding the dry ingredients to the mixture in the big bowl.  Add them a little at a time, blending well between additions.  When all the dry ingredients are added, start beating the batter with a large spoon or a mixer.    For good cake/cupcakes, the chemistry of the ingredients must be blended thoroughly and smoothly.

Pour the batter into your cupcake pans, put the pans into the oven, and bake for 15-20 minutes.  The heat will create a reaction that will turn all those ingredients you mixed together into. . . . cake.  After 15 minutes, check for doneness; there are several ways to check.  When the cupcakes look done and spring back when you tap them with your finger, or when an inserted toothpick comes out clean, the cupcakes are done.  Remove them from the oven and let them cool.

Cupcakes.  All those ingredients turned into cupcakes.  Kitchen science.
Cupcakes. All those ingredients turned into cupcakes. Kitchen science.

Put some icing on them if you like icing.  Icing is kitchen science, too, but for now, we’ll let you wonder about that one as you devour your cupcakes.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody talk about leftover cupcakes.

 

 

Don’t Miss Your Best Chance to Study Electrostatics

By Christy McGuire, ThrivingSTEM.com

For those of us who live in the United States it is winter time right now.  Most people think about snow as the main scientific aspect of winter.  Some may even think about the increase in darkness.  However, for most of us, winter also means your best chance to do electrostatics and have your demonstration actually work.

StudyElectrostaticsSquare-McGuire

Electrostatics are all those cool demonstrations where you remove the electrons from one object and then the other object wants to stick to it. You can then send the electrons back, creating mini-lightning. Electrostatics are also responsible for the phenomenon of hat hair.

I am sure some of you know the joke about biology stinking,  chemistry exploding, and physics failing.  Electrostatic experiments are super cool, but they can also be particularly prone to failure.  The main culprit is usually extra humidity.  Extra water molecules hanging around will ruin your experiment because those polar water molecules attract extra electrons to hang out with them instead of going to the object of your choice.  That means that the potential difference that should have been created by the electron imbalance may be too small to do anything impressive in your demonstration.

The amount of water that the air can carry decreases with temperature.  Colder air, is often dryer than it would be if it were warm.  Hot air can also be dry, but cold air has to be dry. That’s why your electrostatic experiments will be at their best now, in the winter.  Of course, if you live in Florida, that may be a bit different, but at least it will not be raining every day, so I would still pull out your toys and give them a try if I were you!

Ready but not sure quite what to do?

Here are some ideas.  You will notice that Van der Graaf generators are conspicuously missing. I do not have access to one right now, but if you do and you have a great post about, please link it up in the comments. Most of these are ideas are simple enough that you could have each student do their own.  You could then assign each student to teach a family member how the demonstration works and why.

Ideas for electrostatic demonstrations

Attraction

Steve Spangler uses a charge of static electricity to make objects float with Floating Static Bands.

The Rebecca at the Kids Activities Blog lists four different demonstrations that can be done with balloons.

You could add some fun with paper frogs like they did at Science Sparks or a Snake, Kids Activities Blog.

Schooling a Monkey recommends using a comb. 

This electroscope from education.com could be calibrated to allow your students to do some experimentation and numerical analysis.

I think this butterfly from I Heart Crafty Things is my favorite though!

Electrostatic Discharge (AKA “lightning”)

This demonstration from Raising Life Long Learners is really simple to prepare.

Learn Play Imagine has another demonstration that would probably be pretty impressive and save you the need to find a dark room, or to take your class into one.

 

Happy Experimenting!

Christy McGuire is a trained physics teacher who loves developing new ways for students to engage with science.  While taking a break from the high school classroom, Christy rediscovered that young children are tons of fun, and can learn powerful science and math too.  Now she is attempting to cross the excitement of early childhood style learning with serious STEM study to benefit students on both ends of the learning process.    Find activities and reflections on STEM learning on her blog: www.ThrivingSTEM.com.

Holiday Science: Long-Lasting Christmas Jelly Marbles Polymer

Our polymers are more than just awesome, great fun, beautiful, and educational, you know.  Our polymers are awesome, great fun, beautiful, educational, and long-lasting.

How long-lasting are they, you ask?  I really don’t know yet.  The polymers in this Christmas decoration are seven years old and still going strong.

Seven years old and still beautiful!
Seven years old and still beautiful!

What you see up there is a Christmas candy jar with about a tablespoon of Spangler Science’s Clear Jelly Marbles, about three drops of green food coloring, and a cup of plain tap water.  Don’t put the lid on the jar until the jelly marbles and water reach the top of the jar.  THEN put the lid on.  Once you put the lid on the jar, the marbles won’t grow any more because they need a little air to help them grow.  (Please notice that this jar has a lid that seals!  That’s important.)

It took these Jelly Marbles only a few hours to grow to the size I wanted them.  If I removed the jar’s lid and drained off the water, the polymer Jelly Marbles would shrink back down to the size of rock salt again, but they wouldn’t be “dead;” when I added water again, they would grow again.

Would they still be green?  Nope.  Not if I rinsed off the food coloring.  I could keep them their own clear, invisible-in-the-water selves, or I could drop in some red, or blue, or green again, or create my own colors by combining primary colors.  I could drop in an Easter egg color tablet. I could use a Spangler Science True Color Tablet.

True Color Fizzers

The point is, seven years ago I made a pretty and decorative Christmas decoration using some simple polymers – clear jelly marbles – some food coloring, and some water, and I’m still using that pretty and decorative Christmas decoration this Christmas.

At Spangler Science, you will find many products and ideas that you can use during almost any holiday time – simple ideas, simple projects, ideas you can use by yourself or with your family, even with young children.

 

 

 

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

College Students & Screaming Balloons

I love to watch actual students doing actual experiments, and my college students and their screaming balloons turned an ordinary writing lab into a writing AND science lab!

Starting at the Stonegate Arts and Education Center in Bedford, Indiana, my Ivy Tech students and I ended our writing lab by discussing how writers sometimes have to describe something in an unusual way.  Mention was made of the South African vuvuzela of soccer World Cup infamy, and so my aspiring writers created this sound with balloons and hex nuts.

Melissa and Alisha with their screaming balloons!
Melissa and Alisha with their screaming balloons!
Kitch and his screaming balloon!
Kitch and his screaming balloon!

Incidentally, the Stonegate Arts & Education Center is an Ingress portal, in case you might be interested in that.  And I hope you are.

Stonegate Arts & Education Center in Bedford, Indiana - Ingress Portal!
Stonegate Arts & Education Center in Bedford, Indiana – Ingress Portal!

That was all on Wednesday afternoon. Thursday night my students at Ivy Tech at Springs Valley Learning Center in French Lick, Indiana had this same lesson.  Different town, different students, same concept.  Similar reactions.  Even the facial expressions were similar!

Pamela, Kendra, Raven, Chelsea, and Andre having fun with their Screaming Balloons in French Lick!
Pamela, Kendra, Raven, Chelsea, and Andre having fun with their Screaming Balloons in French Lick!

It’s not just little kids who love science, you know.  College students and adults love science, too!

Steve Spangler warned me to bring earplugs to class this past week.  I should have taken his advice!

 

 

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

Holiday Science: Gravy

What’s so scientific about your holiday gravy?  Isn’t gravy just, well, food?  Food we put on mashed potatoes and turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Sunday and, well, pretty much any time?   How could gravy have anything to do with science?

Yummy! But science?  How in the world. . . .
Yummy! But science? How in the world. . . .

Here’s the thing, drooling holiday turkey & gravy lovers:  gravy-making is all about the science of starch.

Starch?  That white powdery stuff Great-Grandma used to make her handkerchiefs and your Great-Grandpa’s boxers smooth and stiff?

Yep.  Exactly.  Only in the kitchen, we use white powdery stuff made especially for use in food.  Otherwise, it’s the same stuff.

Starch is plant-based, and many people use wheat or corn-based starches to make gravy.  I like to use corn starch*, as flour (wheat-based starch, no joke!) adds its own flavor to gravy whereas corn starch does not.  Both, however, require some fancy whisking to get all the lumps out!  (If you’ve ever had to choke down lumpy gravy, you’ll appreciate the extra effort put into smooth gravy!)

A kitchen whisk makes stirring lumps out of gravy a lot easier and quicker!
A kitchen whisk makes stirring lumps out of gravy a lot easier and quicker!

What is starch, exactly?  Interesting question!  Starch is a complex carbohydrate.  To put it more simply, starch is a fancy chain of sugars – fancy, because while sugar dissolves completely in liquid, starches absorb the liquid, rather than disappearing completely in it.

If you added a heaping tablespoon of sugar – white or brown – to your skillet of hot turkey fat, it would simply disappear, completely absorbed by the liquid.  But if you added a heaping tablespoon of cornstarch or flour to that same skillet, it would start bonding with the fat and the entire contents would start to “gel.”  Add a little salt and some milk to your skillet, keep stirring, and in a few minutes, you’ll have delicious gravy, table-ready to pour right onto your mashed potatoes and turkey slices.  Without the addition of milk, your gravy would be too stiff to ladle out!

If you use flour as your starch, your gravy will be a little “stickier” than gravy made with corn starch.  Many people prefer that, and many people do not.  Your call.  If you have a gluten allergy, use corn starch – flour contains gluten.

Take a quick scientific peek at what you’re adding to your gravy:

Simple starch molecule
Simple starch molecule

You see?  I TOLD you gravy was scientific!

Especially for you cooks, here’s a simple recipe for holiday (and any other day) gravy:

In a large skillet, heat (on low) 1 cup of turkey drippings (or ham drippings, or bacon drippings, or butter), stirring constantly.  Sprinkle one heaping tablespoon of corn starch onto the drippings, still stirring constantly.  When the mixture begins to bubble, SLOWLY add milk (or water if you don’t want your gravy as rich) and still stirring constantly.  Switch out your spoon for a whisk, and begin slowly whisking the mixture.  It will start to firm up very quickly.  When it’s the right degree of firm to your taste, remove from heat and pour into a gravy boat or bowl.  Take it to the table and start eating.  Gravy should be served and eaten immediately, so it’s probably going to be the last thing set on the table before everyone dives in.  If gravy has to sit and wait, the consistency changes.  That’s scientific, too.  Look it up.

Make a big batch; gravy freezes nicely, and there’s something about turkey gravy in the spring. . . .

Don’t think it’s just wheat and corn that contain starch.  Loads of vegetables, legumes, and grains are starchy.  Potatoes,  pumpkin, sweet potatoes,  all kinds of beans, peas, rice, and tons of other foods are starchy.   Don’t try to make gravy with all of them, though.

*Yes, indeed, the same corn starch we use for our non-Newtonian liquids!  In fact, gravy IS a non-Newtonian liquid!

 

 

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.