Keep kids busy during school shutdown with cool science experiments from Lawrence Tech

Release Date: March 26, 2020

By Jaclyn Smith

When students have to miss school, they miss out on important instructional time that feeds their young, curious minds. When their schedules are suddenly turned upside down, frustration and boredom can set in, unless they are able to find ways to occupy their time.

But there are many resources and activities out there to help fuel your child’s inquisitive nature and desire to learn new things, even if you are stuck at home.

Children may be missing out on being in science class, but the good news is that science isn’t only found in the classroom. It’s everywhere—including in your own kitchen! Here are a couple of cool experiments you can do during this time of “social distancing” to keep your kids’ minds active. If you are a teacher looking for demonstrations to do for your students remotely, these experiments are perfect for that as well.

Experiment One: Elephant Toothpaste Reaction

One experiment you can do at home that is explosively fun is commonly known as “Elephant Toothpaste” and uses materials you can find in your pantry. You will need the following items: a 12-ounce water bottle; one-half cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide; liquid dish soap; 3 tablespoons of warm water; one-quarter ounce of active dry yeast (fast-acting is best for effect); a plastic or glass bowl; a spoon; a baking pan; and food dye.

The steps of the experiment are as follows:

  1. Place a large baking pan or tray on a table that is a comfortable height for you to work on.
  2. Stand a water bottle upright in the middle of the baking pan.
  3. Measure one-half cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide and add the hydrogen peroxide to the bottle.
  4. Add a few drops of food coloring and swirl to mix.
  5. Add a few drops of dish soap and swirl again. Set the bottle aside while you prepare the yeast mixture.
  6. In the bowl, add the yeast and 3 tablespoons of warm water.
  7. Mix the yeast and water together by stirring with a spoon.
  8. Quickly add the yeast mixture to the bottle, step back, and observe!
  9. Take it a step further: if multiple people are able to participate, have each person do this experiment at the same time using different colors of food dye.

You should see a spectacular display of colorful foam bursting out of the top of the water bottle. But what exactly is the science behind what is happening here? Essentially, you witnessed the hydrogen peroxide breaking down into water and oxygen – something that happens naturally, but very gradually. We are able to speed this decomposition process up with the addition of the yeast, which acts as a catalyst when added to the solution. A catalyst is a substance that has the ability to “speed up” a reaction. When this yeast catalyst is added, the hydrogen peroxide quickly breaks down into water and oxygen, and the oxygen is trapped in the form of soap bubbles. It is that quick release of oxygen that causes the foam to expand so quickly and burst dramatically out of the top of the water bottle. Some say the visual effect of the colorful foam bursting out of the water bottle resembles larger sized toothpaste being squeezed out of its container—the origin of the name “Elephant Toothpaste.”


Experiment Two: Make Your Own Lava Lamp

For this next experiment, take a trip back in time by making your very own lava lamp! To do this experiment you will need a 12-ounce water bottle; water; vegetable or canola oil; food dye; and one  Alka Seltzer tablet.

Here are the instructions to make your lava lamp:

  1. Fill the water bottle a little more than half full with vegetable oil.
  2. Fill the rest of the bottle with water (almost to the top but not overflowing). Wait until the liquids settle—what do you notice about the order of the liquids?
  3. Add about 10 drops of food coloring. Make sure to add enough so that the water becomes fairly dark in color. What is the difference between the way the food dye behaves in vegetable oil and the way that it behaves in water?
  4. Break an Alka Seltzer tablet into four pieces. Drop one of the pieces into the bottle and observe. When the bubbling stops, add another piece. Repeat for the rest of the Alka Seltzer. What do you see happening?
  5. Once all of the Alka Seltzer has been dropped into the bottle and the bubbling has completely stopped, screw the cap tightly onto the bottle.
  6. Take it a step further and shine a light through the bottom of the bottle for extra visual effect.

The visual effects created by this DIY lava lamp are pretty groovy! One of the scientific concepts you can clearly observe in this demonstration is “density.” Even though the vegetable oil is added to the bottle first, the water sinks underneath the oil. This is due to the fact that oil is less dense than water, and oil is therefore able to “float” on top of the water. Other concepts this activity highlights are polarity and solubility. When the food dye is added, it is able to dissolve in the water because it is water-based, and like water, it is a polar substance—its atoms are arranged so that they have magnetic poles, one end positive, the other negative. Oil, on the other hand, is a non-polar substance, so the dye cannot dissolve in it—you will see it travel through the oil as perfectly round droplets of color. Finally, when the Alka Seltzer tablet is dropped into the bottle, a chemical reaction happens within the water which produces carbon dioxide and water bubbles, which float up through the oil and simulate the visual effects of a lava lamp.

After the experiments, ask your kids how they can expand upon these concepts. What questions do they have about the content and how do they see it relating to their everyday lives? How can they share what they have learned with others? You could have them do the experiment on their own and record it as an informational video that they could share online. They could do the experiment again and use a slow-motion camera to try to get a closer look at the phenomenon. Or perhaps they want to record the experiment and incorporate it into a Tik-Tok video. Try to find creative ways to engage their young minds by using technology that directly interest them.

And when parents and kids are looking for more exciting hands-on activities to try, take a look at the list of additional resources at the end of this article for ideas.

Bozeman Science (6-12) – YouTube channel with short science video lectures.

Discovery Education (K-12) - Online videos and lesson activities.

HHMI BioInteractive (9-12) – Resources geared toward the biological sciences.

National Geographic (K-12) - Find educational resources for Grades Pre-K–12, from brief activity ideas to rich multimedia lessons and units.

WeatherSTEM (K-12) - Scholar from WeatherSTEM resources and lessons engage students in weather and data literacy.

Exploratorium Museum (K-12) - For all ages, in both formal and informal learning settings, these essential tools spark curiosity, exploration, and understanding.

Scientific American (K-12) - Fun science activities that can be done with household items in a half hour or less.

American Association for Chemistry Teachers (6-12) – Resources for the chemical sciences.

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Jaclyn Smith is STEM outreach coordinator at Lawrence Technological University’s Marburger STEM Center, the university’s outreach center for K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) outreach efforts.

 Lawrence Technological University, www.ltu.edu, is a private university founded in 1932 that offers more than 100 programs through the doctoral level in its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and Engineering. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 15 percent of universities for the salaries of its graduates, and U.S. News and World Report lists it in the top tier of best Midwestern universities. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.