ChemShorts for Kids   --   1997
Copyright ©1997 by the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society

by Dr. Kathleen A. Carrado, Argonne National Labs

ChemShorts Home

Please note:  All chemicals and experiments can entail an element of risk, and no experiments should be performed without proper adult supervision.


Kids, how would you like to make your own version of an erupting volcano? These directions are for a rather large one, so you can scale it down if that is more convenient. You will need a large quantity of modeling clay, 1 tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), 1 cup of vinegar (acetic acid), and red food coloring. Make a mountain out of the modeling clay in a large pan, tray, tub or tank. The mountain should be about 1 foot in diameter at the bottom, about 3 or 4 inches in diameter at the top, and about 1 foot high. Then make a hole going down from the top into the mountain, about 2 inches in diameter at the top but wider inside the mountain. Be certain it is deep enough and wide enough to hold the whole cup of vinegar.

Mix about 5 drops of red food coloring in the vinegar to make the "lava" orange, and pour it into the volcano. Now drop in the 1 tbsp. of baking soda, sit back, and watch it foam and froth. What it happening chemically? The acetic acid (CH3COOH) is mixing with the sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 ) to make carbon dioxide gas (CO2 ), water (H2O), and sodium acetate (NaC2H3O2 ). For the older kids, this is a "double replacement" reaction. It's the CO2 that makes the solution foam.

A variation on the volcano is to actually build it out of dirt, shaping moist dirt around an empty soda bottle and filling the bottle with the vinegar and baking soda. Or you can shape the clay around the bottle. Please read a bit about volcanos now to learn how real ones work. Look in an encyclopedia, ask a scientist, check out a book from your library, or cruise the internet!
Written by: Kathleen A. Carrado, Chair of the Elementary Education Committee.

References: "Chemistry for Every Kid" by Janice VanCleave (p. 76) and the La Jolla Country Day School web page:


Kids, how would you like to make your own paper? You'll need two full newspaper pages, water, a coat hanger, an old pair of panty hose, two spoonfuls of white glue, a wad of dryer lint, a blender or food processor, and a kitchen sink.

Keep the hook in the coat hanger but re-shape the triangle to make it into a square. Stretch the panty hose over the wire square and tie knots in the ends (tie it around the hook); clip off the rest of the hose. Tear the newspaper into strips and then into tiny squares. Put the pieces into the blender and add enough water to cover it. You can add the dryer lint for extra texture. Have an adult turn on the blender and watch while it runs for about three minutes. Turn off the blender, put the stopper in your sink, and pour in the gray gunk. Add four or five inches of water, add the glue, and mix it up really well using your hands. Put the wire square in the sink until it's flat on the bottom, then life it out very, very slowly. Very slowly. When it's all the way out, let the water drip out for a whole minute. Hang your square in a dry, warm place until it is completely dried out. Any moisture will wreck your paper, so be patient. Peel your paper off of the square and cut it, write on it, draw on it, do whatever paper-y thing you like.

Your paper is in fact better than real paper because it's recycled paper! Every ton of paper we recycle can save 13 to 20 harvestable trees. Recycling helps keep the planet in balance, so keep it up!
Submitted by: Kathleen A. Carrado, Chair of the Elementary Education Committee.

References: "Beakman's World" internet site at:


Kids, how would you like to make electricity with a lemon? You'll need a lemon, a galvanometer, 2 stiff copper wires, a large paper clip, and scissors.

If there is any insulation on the ends of the wire, have an adult strip it off. Untwist the paper clip and twist the end of one of wires around it. Squeeze and roll the lemon to loosen the pulp inside. Make two small cuts in the skin of the lemon an inch or so apart. Insert the bare wire and the paper clip through these cuts into the juicy part. The two wires should be close but not touching. Connect the free ends of the two wires to the terminals of the meter.

Now watch the meter move! What's happening here? Electrochemistry causes the two different metals (the copper wire and the iron clip) in the acid (lemon juice) to draw electrons away from one wire towards the other. They flow out fo the lemon through one wire, go through the meter and then enter the lemon by the other wire.

You can even try to make your own galvanometer (an instrument designed to detect electrical currents) if one isn't available to you. You'll need a compass, 15 feet of bell wire (hardware store), and a small rectangular cardboard tray. Place the compass in the cardboard tray. Scrape off 1/2" of insulation from each end of the bell wire. Starting 6" from one end, wind the wire tightly around the box, circling it at least two dozen times. Leave another 6" of wire free on the other end of the tray. Rest your homemade galvanometer on the table horizontally and turn it until the compass needle is parallel to the coil of wire. Use these bell wire ends to attach to your lemon and paper clip.
Submitted by: Kathleen A. Carrado, Chair of the Elementary Education Committee.
Reference: "Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials" by M. Mandell, NY: Sterling Publ., 1990, p. 58.


Kids, how would you like to make your own bottle of perfume? If you don't use it yourself, it would make a nice Mother's Day gift...

You'll need a small baby food jar with a lid, some rubbing alcohol, and 15 whole cloves. Place the cloves in the jar and half fill the jar with the rubbing alcohol. Secure the lid and let the jar sit for seven days. When the time is up, test the perfume using your finger to dab a few drops of the alcohol on your wrist. Let the alcohol evaporate and then smell your wrist. Your skin should have a faint, spicy aroma.

What's happening here? The alcohol dissolves the aromatic oil in the cloves. When the alcohol evaporates from the wrist, the scented oil is left on the skin. Rubbing alcohol is a dilute solution of isopropanol, or isopropyl alcohol, in water. Perfumes are made by dissolving oils from flowers and other aromatic materials in alcohol. See the March 1996 ChemShorts on "Sugar and Spice" for more information on spices. For example, cloves are small, round, dark brown, dried flower-buds grown in places like Zanzibar and Sumatra. The aromatic oil of cloves is called eugenol (C10H12O2 ). Cloves, like many spices, are used in cooking and baking to enhance flavors. Cloves are often used when baking a ham, for example. Perhaps some cloves are left over from your Easter ham that can be used for your Mother's Day gift!
Submitted by: Kathleen A. Carrado, Chair of the Elementary Education Committee.

Reference: "Chemistry for Every Kid" by Janice VanCleave, NY: Wiley Publ., 1989, p. 172.


Kids, in this activity you can pretend to be a geologist and test some rocks and other natural materials using a common chemical method.

You'll need a small sampling of rocks, making sure that some of them are limestone or marble, chalk, a few seashells, vinegar and/or lemon juice, and some clear plastic cups. Put the seashells in one cup, each rock in it's own cup, and a piece of chalk in a cup. Label each of them if necessary, especially to keep track of the rocks. Pour the lemon juice or vinegar over each material and note what happens. You should see bubbles form on some of the materials, although not from all of the rocks.

What's happening here? Vinegar and lemon juice are both weak, dilute acids (acetic acid and citric acid, respectively). Calcium carbonate is a chemical compound found in many natural materials, such as limestone and seashells. When calcium carbonate is exposed to acid, it chemically changes into new materials. One of these is carbon dioxide gas, which form the bubbles that you observe in the cup. When limestone is exposed to great heat and pressure under the earth's surface for many years, it turns into marble. It is still calcium carbonate and that is why marble will form bubbles with acid also. You get similar results when using chalk because it, too, is made of limestone.
Submitted by: Kathleen A. Carrado, Chair of the Elementary Education Committee.

Reference: "Earth Science for Every Kid" by Janice VanCleave, NY: Wiley Publ., 1991, p. 32 and "Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials" by Muriel Mandell, NY: Sterling, 1990, p. 54.


Kids, in this activity you will learn how to make a thick - a very thick - liquid. It will be non-toxic, non-corrosive, cheap, and edible. It will, in fact, in many ways resemble a typical fast food restaurant milkshake.

You'll need 12 oz of water, and a tablespoon each of milk, chocolate syrup, and powdered xanthan gum. What in the world is xanthan gum and where do you find it? Most specialty health food stores and pharmacies should have some of this substance. When these ingredients are mixed in a blender for a few minutes, the result looks virtually indistinguishable from your local fast food shake. The taste won't be quite as good; however, you can add more syrup, or a touch of sugar or vanilla extract, and ice chips to make it closer.

What's happening here? Xanthan gum is a synthetic carbohydrate polymer, similar to natural gums. It is one of many common thickening agents used as food additives. It forms what is called a "hydrophillic colloid", or small particles that can soak up amazing amounts of water. Other examples are agar, arabic gum, bentonite (a clay!), celluloses, and polyethylene glycol. Look on lists of ingredients to find these substances, especially on "fat free" or "reduced fat" alternatives (they replace the smoothness of the fat). You may also find carrageenan, a polysaccharide derived from seaweed. Rumor has it that this is what is really used in those fast food shakes - so much for the actual amount of "milk" in them!
Submitted by: Kathleen Carrado, Chair, Elementary Education Committee.

Reference: Larry Lippman on the internet at:


Matter is another word for the material that makes up all the stuff in the whole world. The three forms, or states, of matter are solids, liquids, and gases. One very useful thing about matter is the way it can change between it's forms. In this activity you'll watch matter change from one state to another!

You'll need ice, 3 clear plastic cups, water, a measuring cup, masking tape, ballpoint pen, paper towels, and a really humid day. Use the masking tape and pen to label the cups A, B, and C. Place 1/2 cup cold water in each cup. Wipe the outside of the cups with the paper towels to insure they are dry. Leave cup A alone as your control experiment. Add one ice cube to cup B. Fill cup C with ice until it is nearly full. Let them sit 5 minutes. Look at the outside of the cups. Describe what you see, then use your finger to test for any liquid on the outside of the cups. What is this liquid and where did it come from?

What's happening here? You are watching a gas change to a liquid as a result of condensation. The liquid came from water vapor (water in its gaseous state) in the air, which has condensed to form liquid on the surface of the cold cup. Does one cup seem to have more liquid on the outside than another? Why do you think it does?
Submitted by: Kathleen Carrado, Chair, Elementary Education Committee.

Reference: WonderScience, 1997, 11(5).


Kids, you can make a bubbly lemon, lemon-lime, or orange soda that is actually pretty tasty. You'll need a lemon, lime, or orange, and a glass, water, baking soda, and sugar. This is what you do: squeeze the juice from a lemon or orange into the glass. If you want the lemon-lime taste, add some juice from a lime to the lemon juice. According to how much juice you were able to get, add an equal amount of water. Stir in a teaspoon of baking soda, and observe what happens. Check out the taste, then add sugar if you like (or some other sweetener), tweaking the ingredients until it tastes perfect to you. Actually, any citrus fruit will do. If you happen to like grapefruit, you could also try one of these alone or in combination with one of the other fruits mentioned.

What's happening here? You are watching a gas being created by a reaction in-a-glass. The baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 ), is reacting with citric acid from the juice to create carbon dioxide gas. This is why you need a citrus fruit for this experiment. All sodas get their fizz from trapped carbon dioxide (CO2 ) bubbles, although it is usually added via pressurization. In other words, the bubbles in real soda are created by carbon dioxide gas that is added under pressure to a solution of water and a flavored sweetener, and that's all there is to soda-pop!
Submitted by: Kathleen Carrado, Chair, Elementary Education Committee.

Reference: Simple Science Experiments with Everyday Materials, by Muriel Mandell, 1989, Sterling Publishing Co., NY.


When Archie cuts up apples,
The slices all turn brown.
They don't look very yummy,
Which makes his buddies frown.
But Archie is a good cook
Who knows a special way
To stop the color changing
At any time of day!

Kids, if you want to test out Archie's secret, you'll need paper towels, paper, 3 fresh apple wedges, lemon juice, and water. Spread out the paper towels. Make a large chart on the paper with columns of "water", "lemon juice", and "nothing". Place the apple wedges on the chart, one for each column. Pour some water on the first wedge, lemon juice on the second, and do nothing to the third. Wait one hour and observe your apples. What has happened? Do you know why? When it's protective skin is gone, certain substances in an apple will react with oxygen in the air and turn brown. Citric acid in the lemon juice has stopped the reaction of oxygen that turns the apple brown. This trick of using lemon juice, or orange juice, is used by Archie and many other cooks to keep apples, bananas, and other fruit looking good for fruit salads, etc.!

Taken From:
Apples, Bubbles, and Crystals: Your Science ABCs, by A. Bennett & J. Kessler, 1996, McGraw-Hill, NY.

Floating Peanuts

Fern the Duck catches peanuts
She eats them in a wink.
She has to catch them quickly,
Or else the peanuts sink.
Fern can give some good advice
That slower ducks should note.
Moving to saltwater helps,
'Cause there the peanuts float!

Kids, here's how you can test Fern's theory for yourself. Use masking tape and a pencil to label two clear plastic cups as "fresh water" and "salt water". Add water to each cup until 3/4 full. Add 6 teaspoons of table salt to the salt water cup and mix with a spoon for a few minutes. Add a peanut (the kind that is already shelled) to each cup, and observe what happens. You should see Fern's theory in action: the peanut in the fresh water will instantly sink while the peanut in the salt water will float. In fact it will float all night! Objects float if they're lighter than the amount of liquid that they displace, or push aside. They sink if they're heavier. Fern's peanuts are heavier than the fresh water that they displace, so they sink. Dissolving salt in fresh water makes the same amount of liquid heavier, allowing the peanut to float. It's the same reason that you float more easily in the ocean than in a lake!

Taken From: Apples, Bubbles, and Crystals: Your Science ABCs, by A. Bennett & J. Kessler, 1996, McGraw Hill, NY.

Updated 2/12/99