Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Science of the Air

Every week, Madison (my 10-year old daughter) and I teach a 1.5-hour afterschool science club for K-2nd graders.  We learned the experiments and activities from Steve Spangler (awesome speaker and science guy extraordinaire).  Most of the links to the complete descriptions of the experiments and the products we used connect you to his website.  We are not affiliated with this company, but we are raving fans – .

Lesson 3
Science of the Air
Science Standards Addressed:
  • Observe that things (air) move in different ways.
  • Describe the characteristics of the 3 states of matter.
  • Know that air takes up space and exerts a force.
Plus we snuck in some speaking and listening standards like asking questions, expressing ideas, following multi-step directions, and participating in discussions.

See a similar afterschool science lesson that we did in 2009 at

10 minutes
As the children arrived we played the songs Something in the Air, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Air that I Breathe, by the Hollies, and Love is Like Oxygen, by Pilot.

Next we had a snack that once again was a hint of the science to follow.  We snacked on Rice Krispie Treats (both the rice cereal and the marshmallows have many tiny pockets of air). While we ate snack we asked the kids to “describe the properties” of the treats.  They had some difficulty coming up with describing words that didn’t have anything to do with how they TASTE!  So, we asked them to pretend that they had to describe these treats over the phone to an alien from outer space that did not eat food and had no sense of taste.  Now they started using words like sticky, tan, gooey, bumpy, etc.  They described the many bubbles, which led to the question, “What is inside bubbles?” Air! We asked them to predict what the topic might be.

While we ate, Madison gave us another hint and snuck in some English Language Arts by reading Gilberto and the Wind, by Marie Hall – a story about Gilberto and his friendship with the wind.  The wind can be mean or nice; it takes Gilberto’s toys away, but also plays with bubbles and gives him an apple.

Then Madison read The Wind Blew, by Pat Hutchins – a story about a town where the wind took an umbrella, a balloon, a hat, a kite, a wig, and even more things. Then dropped them down again.

Waterproof Paper Challenge:  We gave the kids the challenge of dunking a wad of paper towel COMPLETELY under water for 10 seconds and keeping the paper towel COMPLETELY dry – using only a small cup and a piece of tape. The kids eventually discovered that if they taped the wad of paper towel to the bottom of the cup and submerged it upside down into the water, the bubble of air trapped inside the cup separates the paper towel from the water and keeps the wad from getting wet – having no way to escape the air kept the water from entering.  Now - tilt the glass while under water – what happens? See our afterschool Waterproof Paper Engineering Challenge Video on You Tube

Impossible Bottle: We slipped a balloon inside the neck of a special bottle (Impossible Bottle) and stretched the mouth of the balloon over the top of the bottle.  A volunteer tried to blow up the bottle, but the balloon won’t inflate because the bottle is already filled with air and there’s NO room for the balloon to expand.  Then we removed the stopper that plugged a second hole in the bottle.  This time the volunteer could easily blow up the balloon since as the balloon inflates it pushes the air in the bottle out the escape hole.  Then when we replace the stopper, the outside air can’t get back in so the balloon STAYS inflated.  LOTS of “Woa’s” and “Wow’s” from the kids at that little trick of science! Full Experiment Description

Huff ‘n’ Puff Challenge: We gave the kids an “empty” 1L soda bottle and a small wad of paper towel.  They placed the small wad of paper towel into the neck of the bottle.  Their challenge was simply to blow the wad of paper INTO the bottle.  Remember the bottle is not empty, but is COMPLETELY filled with AIR (takes up space and exerts force)!  This definitely falls into the harder than it looks category! As you blow air into the bottle, you force the air that was already in there to blow out the only place it can escape.  This escaping air blows the paper ball OUT! Try blowing hard or soft.  Try blowing close to the bottle or further away.  What do you think would happen if instead of a loose, pea-sized ball you made a more compact spit wad?  What if the opening was bigger?  What if you created another escape hole? See our afterschool Huff 'n' Puff Challenge Video on You Tube

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble
Bubbles are great ways to explore air and talk about the three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. What is a bubble? A bubble is air or another gas surrounded by a thin liquid film of soapy water surrounded by more air.  The thin film of soapy water forms three layers – a thin layer of water sandwiched between two layers of soap molecules.  On both sides of the layer of water, soap molecules orient themselves so their water-loving (hydrophilic) heads face the layer of water and their water-fearing (hydrophobic) feet extend away from the water.

What causes bubbles to pop? Among other things, rough edges and the oils in our skin. So we gave the kids gloves to wear so they could actually touch, hold, and examine the bubbles.

Bubbles form because of the surface tension of water – positively-charged hydrogen atoms in one molecule attracted to the negatively-charged oxygen atoms in another molecule. The molecules cling together to enclose the maximum amount of air with the minimum amount of bubble solution. Bubbles become spheres because it is the shape that requires the least energy to form. But we used the stick and ball connectors called ZOME to construct bubbles with forms in shapes like cubes, pyramids, bananas, spirals, flowers, and even a dodecahedron!

Vortex Generators.  Steve’s signature grand finale is shooting giant smoke rings (See his video and description here), so this was the afterschool science club grand finale too!  First we bought a cheap 5-gallon bucket, cut a hole in the bottom and fastened a piece of a cheap clear shower curtain over the top with a bungee cord.  We have the kids put Styrofoam cups on their heads and we blow them off doughnuts of air created by this small vortex generator – they LOVE it!  Then we kick it up a notch and take things outside with the big smoke ring generator made with a large garbage can and the rest of the cheap shower curtain.

We ignite a smoke bomb (the little ones they sell at fireworks stands) and place the hole in the trashcan over the smoke bomb so that smoke fills the trashcan.  Then we gently tap the shower curtain and send cool smoke rings out over the cars of parents arriving to pick up their kids.  

Ta dah!
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