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Nine fun projects that bring together science and the environment.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
What does Earth Day mean to you? Maybe it’s recycling, starting a school compost garden, or talking to students about eco-inventions like electric cars and vertical aeroponic farms, no longer the stuff of science fiction! As Earth Day approaches, how about some green science? Most of the projects here are borrowed from Scholastic’s classroom science magazines: Science Spin, SuperScience, and Science World. After reading about baby elephants falling into water wells in Africa, we fell in love with the idea of making an “elephant pipeline.” We were thrilled to try out our crafty side by making a colorful bowl out of recycled newspaper. And we bravely took on the challenge of making dye to test out the idea of less toxic dyes for blue jeans. We hope you enjoy going green as much as we did!
What You’ll Need: Measuring cup, blue or red food coloring, large same-size jars, masking tape, marker, celery stalks with leaves, scissors, paper towels, project sheet
What They’ll Learn: How the availability of water affects different parts of a plant
Standard Met: NGSS LS1.A: Structure and Function
How to Make It: How do trees conserve water when there is a drought? Explain that scientists found giant sequoias in California were dropping their needles in order to direct moisture to parts of the tree that most needed it to survive. Tell children that a tree is a plant—just a very, very big one—and that they will be doing an -experiment using stalks of celery to see how plants use water when they have only a little of it available. Mark two jars A and B, and help students fill each with a half cup of colored water. Trim the bottoms of the celery stalks so they’re the same length and place one in each jar. After an hour, remove the stalk from jar A and observe whether the outside has changed color. Then, cut the stalk near the top and check to see if the veins inside have changed color; peel back the skin and record what you see there as well. After 24 hours, remove the celery from jar B and repeat these steps, and then compare the two (the difference should be dramatic). Challenge kids to think about how the water flowed through each stalk (evident by the dye), and why it went to certain parts first.
TIP: Use only the lightest, leafiest, innermost celery stalks.
What They’ll Learn: How to reuse materials; cooperative skills
Standard Met: NGSS ESS3.A: Natural Resources
How to Make It: What kid can resist a project that starts by asking, “How did my homework become toilet paper?” After learning how some companies make toilet paper from recycled paper, have students make their own recycled items! Gather old newspaper and tear into one-inch pieces, enough for each student to have about three cups of the torn paper; let paper soak in hot water overnight. The next day, drain cups into a colander and stir in half a cup of glue for every three cups of paper. Coat outside of plastic bowls with petroleum jelly, and then thickly cover with pulp. When pulp is dry (it takes at least three days), have children carefully remove the plastic bowls and then paint and decorate their recycled paper creations!
TIP: Once the paper mash is smooth, add salt to help prevent mold growing on your bowl as it dries.
The Big Meltdown
What You’ll Need: Glass baking dish, desk lamp, ice block, 16-ounce plastic container, ruler, modeling clay in various colors, small figure (optional), project sheet
What They’ll Learn: How melting land ice causes sea levels to rise; using models; analyzing data
Standard Met: NGSS ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes
How to Make It: Life in the Arctic is changing quickly, for both people and animals, as ice sheets and glaciers melt, causing sea levels to rise. Show students a map and explain that the world’s water is one big system, and the melting Arctic ice affects oceans around the world. Point to the Arctic and tell them you’ll be looking at the danger to the people and animals there because of melting ice and rising water. The day before the experiment, freeze water in the plastic container; remove about 30 minutes before the activity.
Tell students they will first make an “island” out of colorful clay. (If you have enough supplies, put children into small groups to do the activity.) Once the island is done, place it on one side of the glass dish; set the ice block on the other side. Fill the dish a little more than halfway with lukewarm water and help children use rulers to measure the height of the water. Then, position the lamp to shine on the water (explain that the lamp is the “sun,” which will melt the ice). After 30 minutes, measure the water level again and discuss its effect on the island (less of the island is showing because the ice is melting and the water is rising). Continue to measure every 30 minutes until the ice has melted completely.
TIP: Place a figure on your island to spur discussion about the effect of rising water on people and animals.
Saving Sea Wolves
What You’ll Need: Large glass container or tub; vegetable oil; red food coloring; small bowl; spoon; clear cup; cleanup materials, including cotton balls and small squares of paper and cardboard; dishwashing detergent; nitrile gloves or tongs; project sheet
What They’ll Learn: Different methods that are used to clean up oil spills; collecting and analyzing data
Standards Met: NGSS ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems; ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
How to Make It: On the western coast of British Columbia, the wolves love to go fishing! Yet scientists worry the sea wolves’ food source could be in danger if there were an oil spill or leak from a nearby pipeline. Tell students you will look at the best way to clean up an oil spill. Mix vegetable oil and food coloring (to represent toxic chemicals in oil), and then gently pour the mixture into a container with water; tell students their goal is to remove as much oil as they can and keep it away from the “land,” or edges of the container. Have them first try to scoop out the oil with a spoon, and then, using nitrile gloves or tongs, try things like paper, cardboard, cotton balls, and so on to see if they are more effective. Finally, add dishwashing detergent and instruct kids to observe the effect that this has (it will disperse the oil and clean the water). Challenge kids to think about the effect on the water of other chemicals that scientists might use to try to clean up an oil spill.
TIP: Use a glass container to best see the effects of the “oil spill” in the water.
What They’ll Learn: Engineering design process
Standards Met: NGSS ESS3.B: Natural Hazards; ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions
How to Make It: Africa’s open water wells, built to deal with drought, have become hazardous for smaller animals, including baby elephants, who sometimes become trapped when trying to drink from them. Water pipelines can be part of the solution for both animals and people. After reading aloud an article about baby elephants and water issues in Africa, present a variety of materials, and tell students they will use their ingenuity to build an effective pipeline from a large -container to a smaller one. In groups, they should think about questions like how to prevent leaks and how to move the water out of the larger cup to the smaller one. Have students first sketch a design, and then put their plan into action by building their own pipelines. Be sure to place lots of paper towels under pipelines to soak up the inevitable leakage!
TIP: Go eco and use paper, not plastic, straws; if you have only plastic, be sure to save the straws and reuse!
What You’ll Need: Fast-growing plants (wheatgrass, bean, or pea) or seeds, pots, and potting soil; salt; spray bottles; measuring cup and measuring spoons; ruler; marker; project sheet
What They’ll Learn: Planning and carrying out investigations
Standard Met: NGSS LS1.A: Structure and Function
How to Make It: Tropical mangrove forests are incredible ecosystems. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air, prevent erosion, and host many species of animals in their dense branches and soil. Mangroves also can tolerate water that’s 100 times saltier than can most other plants. After explaining that mangroves are under threat because of agriculture, climate change, and other factors, tell students they will be doing an experiment to see how salt affects the growth of plants. Divide students into small groups and give each group three plants and three spray bottles. Challenge them to decide how they will conduct the experiment, and talk with them about factors to change, measure, and test (e.g., amount of water and salt to use). Do this experiment over the course of two to three weeks for the most dramatic results!
TIP: Remind students that a fair test in science changes only one variable.
What You’ll Need: Mason jars with lids, masking tape, marker, hardboiled eggs, water, orange juice, white vinegar, pH test strips, magnifying glass, paper towels, safety goggles, project sheet
What They’ll Learn: Modeling ocean acidification; planning investigations; analyzing data
Standard Met: NGSS PS1.B: Chemical Reactions
How to Make It: Share before-and-after images of reefs, and explain to students that about 75 percent of the world’s reefs, home to abundant sea life, are in danger of disappearing because of ocean acidification. Explain that this is caused by carbon dioxide from the air dissolving in seawater and forming an acid that eats away at the coral. Tell students they will test the effect of acidity on eggshells—which are made of calcium carbonate, the same material as coral—by submerging them in three substances. Explain that their job will be to predict what might happen, and to decide how they will conduct the experiment, including time for submerging the eggs (at least 24 hours to see notable changes) and any other factors they can think of. They should also create a data table to record results. Expect the shells to look and feel completely different—the shells of the ones exposed to more acid will look almost transparent and rub off as white powder!
TIP: Invest in plastic pH strips; the flimsy paper ones don’t work as well.
What You’ll Need: Resealable plastic sandwich bags, measuring spoons, isopropyl alcohol, squeeze-top bottle, paper towels, baking soda, turmeric powder, calcium chloride, timer, strips of muslin material, safety goggles and nitrile gloves, project sheets (one and two) and article
What They’ll Learn: How clothing production affects the environment; signs of a chemical reaction
Standard Met: NGSS PS1.B: Chemical Reactions
How to Make It: Can you make blue jeans green? Share an article with students on the toxic effects of indigo dye, noting that water tainted with harsh chemicals from the dyeing process flows from factories into waterways, harming humans, animals, and the environment. After reading about how biochemists are working on less toxic dyes, tell students they will mix materials to make a chemical reaction—and then use the substance they’ve created to dye a piece of cloth. As you mix the various ingredients (alcohol, baking soda, turmeric, calcium carbonate) to create a reaction, have students record observations during each step. (Note: When turmeric powder reacts with an alkaline base, like baking soda, the color changes to red. It changes back to yellow when an acid is added.) Once they’ve created a dye, distribute scraps of muslin material and have kids use tongs or gloves to dip the material in the bag, letting the dye really soak in. When the material is dry, have them rinse it with water to see if the dye “holds.”
TIP: If you’re up for more mess and smell, use red cabbage leaves to create a blue dye; keep in mind turmeric can also stain skin and clothing.
Updraft Solar Tower
What You’ll Need: Large, empty tin cans, cleaned and with tops and bottoms removed; masking tape; 2 large paper clips; thumbtack; 6-inch squares of paper; hardcover books; lamp (if sunny spot is not available); website source
What They’ll Learn: Transformation of energy; engineering design process
Standard Met: NGSS PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
How to Make It: Harness the power of the sun to spin a propeller in an experiment that brings together solar and wind power! Explain that students will be building a tower out of cans, and
that when the heat from the sun (or a lamp) warms the air inside the cans, it will create a convective updraft (vertical transport of heat) to spin the pinwheel. Begin by handing out cans (prepared beforehand) to groups of students. Tape the cans atop one another, ensuring they are sealed well. Next, make an arch with the paper clips, and tape that and a thumbtack, point up, to the top can. Make a pinwheel and affix to the thumbtack (try an eraser tip to blunt the point). Then, prop your tower on books to allow heat from the sun or a lamp to travel from beneath the tower. In about 20 minutes, the updraft should cause your pinwheel to spin! Questions to pose: What if the tower was painted black? What would happen if the tower wasn’t on blocks?
TIP: Challenge kids to think about whether pinwheels made of different materials would spin faster.
Photos: Adam Chinitz
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