The words “chemistry” and “polymers” strike fear into the hearts of high school students, so when the challenge presented itself to create an innovative week-long summer chemistry camp for elementary school children, Pam Yates and I had decided to “go hard or go home (to Atlee High School where we are science teachers)” to create the first pilot of it’s kind to see if very young children can understand a complex chemistry subject. Here are the overviewed activities of our camp:
A [poly ("many") + mer ("parts")] is any material made from repeating parts of a simple piece of matter. There is an award-winning video called “A World Without Polymers? by Yvonne Choo” explaining a world without polymers and plastics.
Students are given time to reflect in their journals what the world would be like without polymers and describe the two types of polymers, natural and synthetic (plastics) polymers.
Students created polymer structures out of paper clips – linear, branched, and cross-linked and from the paper-clip structures learned how there structures make plastic properties such as flexibility and strength.
DNA is a cross-linked polymer structure that is found in all living things. Students used soap, salt, and rubbing alcohol to extract DNA from strawberries they mashed in a plastic bag.
Dawn of Plastics
Rubber from trees was mass-produced at the height of World War II. Experimentation of plastic compounds created Silly Putty (from Silicon), synthetic dyes, and Post-it notes. Students brought in a ball as homework to compare their properties. We also created gel balls (“spit balls”) and bouncy balls from kits where you add water to dehydrated polymers.
Code-Cracking the Recycle Codes
As homework students had to locate the recycle codes on plastics at home and bring it in to pair-share the next day.
A good breakdown of what the 1 – 7 codes is “What Do Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean? by the Daily Green.” We also discussed why our local recycling centers only accept certain codes (only 1 and 2). We talked about The Big Cleanup with Discovery Education featuring Philippe Cousteau, learning how plastic affects our waterways and how we can take action to protect our oceans.
Recycling Polystyrene Pellets (Styrofoam Packing Peanuts)
When Styrofoam is added to acetone (nail polish remover) it seems to disappear but becomes a melted type of plastic putty that you can mold into shapes that become hard plastic figures when dry.
Bioplastics remove the necessity of using petroleum (a non-renewable resource) in creating synthetic plastics. We used whipping cream to create a bioplastic, and cornstarch can create a bioplastic. Only ingredient of cornstarch… Corn! We also created bioslime and puffy stickers using a biopaint. We also created home-made gummy candies using a kit that extracted the main polymer compounds from guar gum and seaweed.
Spider Silk and Kevlar
The new Spiderman movie was released the same time as our camp, so we discussed how modern scientists were trying to create materials as strong as spider silk. We had an officer bring in 3 types of “bullet-resistant” (as opposed to “bullet-proof”) equipment to discuss how Kevlar (a synthetic polymer) helps protect law enforcement.
The use of journals after every activity/lab was essential for students to be able to incorporate what they have learned and be able to remember the objectives of the camp whenever they open their journals. Also Discovery Education media was essential in presenting all subjects in this camp.