Cometary Tales Hands-On Science Messy Monday: Science Projects for Kids, Teachers, and Parent Helpers

Messy Monday: Science Projects for Kids, Teachers, and Parent Helpers

Welcome to the first official posting under this new category.  In these installments, I’ll be sharing science projects developed over many years while serving as The Science Mom at my local elementary school and in a community after-school program.   When my friend Jean Southland and I first started the in-class projects, the teacher invited us in on Mondays, to create a fun activity for that worst-of-days to students, the First Day of the School Week.  We fooled around with ideas to give this extra science class a name and settled on Jean’s simple and inviting “Messy Monday”.  Since then, Jean moved on to wider-scale education duties, from teaching to administration, and she is now head of  a local charter school.  In the meantime, I continued with developing classroom-scale science projects and coaching a small robotics team.

When the youngest of my kids finally moved on from elementary school and my geek needs were being satisfied by playing with robots, I felt twinges of guilt that I was leaving the next round of students in the lurch.  The most-frequent comments I heard when running science project sessions could be summarized as: “I could never do that”.  Sometimes it was the teacher, in which case she/he would mean  “I can’t spare the time to figure out supply lists, shop for stuff, sort out materials, and test procedures.”  Other times, it was another parent, in which case the meaning was either  “I could do that, if only someone would explain what it’s supposed to mean” or “I understand the science, but someone needs to give me a checklist to follow.”   And in these times, potential cost is always a concern, as most supplemental projects—from field trips to science experiments—end up being funded by parents or from teachers’ own pockets.

In these episodes, I’ll be having a stab at meeting both sets of needs.  With any luck, the end result will be a book of “recipes” for science projects with enough information provided for teachers to slot into their curricula in order to satisfy the science standards they must meet, with clear supply lists to distribute to classroom-helper parents, and with step-by-step instructions for completing projects that any interested parent or teacher will be able to not only follow but build upon to suit their own audiences.  While (like every other blog in the Known Universe) the ultimate result is to be a book of projects that a teacher or parent helper could have at hand, in the short term, there will be first, these erratic blog entries and second, a series of leaflet-style e-docs in a more readable/printable form, to be available from the usual e-book suppliers.  Think of the blog entries as the beta version, the leaflets as the Basic Edition release, and the eventual book as the Portmanteau Edition, with updates, extensions, and add-on packs as needed.

To open the subject, I’ll be delivering a flurry of quick posts to get things started, but then will back off to a more regular pace.  The goal is to deliver one project-worth of information in no more than two weeks.

Every Messy Monday project guide has four key components:

  •  A set of notes for project leaders, sketching the key elements of the project and the science topic it is meant to address
  • A detailed supply list, structured to make it simple to purchase supplies for either a one-shot demonstration or for a classroom-sized group activity.
  • A set of instructions for working through the project with students, including commentary to help cope with common classroom-management issues, questions that are likely to arise, and issues to keep in mind from safety to fairness.
  • A rough estimate of the cost to run the project.

So, let’s get started with a truly cometary project…

You might also like to read:

Cooking With Kuiper: The Instruction SetCooking With Kuiper: The Instruction Set

(update:  2/18/2015)

Time to build a comet!

If you have adult or older-student assistants, ask them to take charge of crowd control; that is, keeping the audience from crowding around the demonstration. Everyone will get to see the comet! Spare a minute for a brief lecture on the hazards of dry ice. You may have participants who know that dry ice can “burn”, but not all will understand that idea at first. However, no one wants to get hurt. Mention that you will be protecting your hands with gloves and your eyes with safety goggles (or safety-rated eyeglasses).

Supplies for Comet Making (Just Add a Cooler-Full of Dry Ice)

Supplies for Comet Making (Keep your cooler-full of dry ice in a safe spot.)

Participation opportunities include: helping move the materials and equipment to a mess-tolerant location, measuring ingredients, and smashing dry ice. The trauma of allotting slots to help out is one important reason to try the exercise at least twice. (Crowd-control tip: sometimes it helps to announce “I’ll only choose helpers from those who do not raise hands and call out to volunteer.”)  As a first step, take one of your plastic bags and cut it open along one side, then use it to line your mixing bowl.  Take 2 other bags and put one inside the other to make a double-thickness bag.

In the first stage,  your chosen helpers will take turns measuring all the “safe” ingredients into the bag-lined mixing bowl.  Working with the dry ice needs closer control, so keep your supply of CO2 off to one side for now.  As you introduce each ingredient, explain why it’s being included.  You can use the short explanations provided here as a starting point, adding your own facts or curriculum tie-ins, but remember to keep it brief or you’ll lose your audience’s attention.

Let’s start with water: most comets are composed primarily of water ice. During the early formation of the solar system, the planets were bombarded by comets—so some of the water you will use in this experiment may have actually originated in the Kuiper Belt!  (For a popular-science overview, check out this article from Time Magazine.)  Your helper will add 2 cups of water.

Next, add sand or gravel: most comets incorporate at least some rocky material.  Have your helpers measure out about 2 Tablespoon (TB) of grit.

Next, you’ll add ammonia: real comets typically contain NH3, the active ingredient in this cleaning solution.   (Regrettably, few, if any, comets show up to help when it’s time to clean house.)  If you’re using a squirt bottle to store the solution, your helper just needs to add one “squirt” of ammonia solution.  Otherwise, your helper should measure in 1 Tablespoon.

A Dirty Soup of Rocks, Water, and Organics

A Dirty Soup of Rocks, Water, Ammonia, and Organics

And, for our last step before major excitement sets in, stir in a touch of ice-cream topping: these contain organic molecules, which are a normal component of comets. The organic molecules in real comets are not this delicious–they include hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde–but comets often contain complex and interesting compounds such as amino acids.   Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center have shown that amino acids from comets striking Earth long ago during the Solar System’s early eons would not only survive impact but would form even more important compounds for life under the heat of impact.   So it may be that we are here to enjoy ice cream (and sugary toppings) thanks to ancient comets.   Let your helper squirt in one squeeze-worth (it will be about a tablespoon).

Now, finally, it is time to add the dry ice.  Comets contain significant quantities of frozen gases, especially carbon dioxide, which just happens to be the gas that we call “dry ice” when frozen.  This stage of your demonstration is a two-step process. First, you will put on safety goggles and work gloves and use the hammer to tap off about 2 pounds of dry ice (1/4 to 1/3 of your supply).  Place the chunks into the doubled plastic bag and twist the opening closed.  Then, and only then, one lucky volunteer will be asked to don a set of goggles and, once protected, may proceed to smash the contained dry ice with the hammer.

Crushing Dry Ice with Flat Side of Hammer

Crushing Dry Ice with Flat Side of Hammer

Have your crusher use a two-handed grip (this helps deflect the temptation to also handle the bag of dry ice and also limits the range of motion, protecting bystanders from the crusher’s swing) and turn the hammer sideways, to smash with a broader surface area.

Once that stage is completed, ask the crusher to rejoin the group.  Make sure that the wooden stirring spoon is at hand and that you are still wearing your work gloves and goggles. Then open the bag and quickly scoop out roughly two cups of crumbled dry ice.

2 Cups of Ice-Cold CO2

2 Cups of Ice-Cold CO2

Give the mixture a stir and then swiftly add the dry ice, stirring vigorously. There will be some dramatic vaporization of CO2 and in moments the dry ice will freeze the water solution to a slushy slurry. Quickly wrap the plastic bag around your slushy mass and—keeping those gloves on—form the contents into a snowball, using firm pressure to shape the contents.

Comet's In the Bag

Comet’s In the Bag

You will feel the mass harden as you form your iceball. At that point, it is time to unwrap the comet and reveal it to your onlookers. You will have something that looks surprisingly like the common description of a comet—“a dirty snowball”.  You may even want to use your snowball-making skills to firm up the comet a bit once you remove it from the bag–remember to keep your gloves on!

Forming Up the Proto-Comet

Firming Up the Comet

Your finished comet

Your finished comet

Set the comet aside on a cold-safe surface, in a location where the eventual water-ice-melt will not damage anything. The comet will continue to outgas CO2 vapor. If you are working outdoors, any breeze will push this plume into a fair imitation of a comet’s tail.

Gases (CO2) immediately begin to sublime from the comet's surface

Gases (CO2) immediately begin to sublime from the comet’s surface

Your experiment team will undoubtedly want to repeat this process. A typical group of students will demand about four comets. After 2 or 3 builds, it will be time to set up fresh plastic bags for mixing and crushing.  If the group is larger, find ways for students to share participation tasks. For instance, two students can take turns as dry-ice crusher, two can each measure one cup of water into the mix, and so on.  As you proceed, instead of repeating the descriptive information yourself, invite the students to call out more of what they remember about the components represent.

Comet, Starting in "Dirty Snowball"

Here’s one small starter comet, let’s call this one “Dirty Little Snowball”

 

These model comets will last a long time, up to a few hours depending on their size and the conditions.  You can explain that the comets which get our attention are much larger–Comet Halley is estimated to be about the size of Manhattan Island–and between visits to the inner Solar System, they orbit back to where it is too cold for water, ammonia, or CO2 to be anything other than solids.  By no means do you need to make any effort to create spherical, smooth comets.  In fact, as you create successive comets, allow them to be different, irregular, and, well, messy.  Here are a few samples from a few of my comet-making sessions:

That's one frosty, rocky, comet:  "Before"

That’s one rocky comet, frosted with ice crystals of H2O and CO2

 

 

That's one slimy, partly-dissociated comet

Here’s a comet with conspicuous dark patches

That's one tall, cone-shaped comet

That’s one tall, frosty, cone-shaped comet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If your schedule permits, allow some time to pass and return to look at the comets after they have lost more material, as if you are checking in on a comet as it approaches the sun and some of its ice has been drawn off under the combined forces of the sun’s radiation and the solar wind…forming the comet’s tail.

Holey Comet, Batman!

Holey Comet, Batman!

Cooking with Kuiper: Project Supply ChartCooking with Kuiper: Project Supply Chart

All Lined Up for Comet Building

All Lined Up for Comet Building

(Update:  2/18/2015)

As mentioned in the notes for project leaders, it’s best to repeat the procedure at least twice–three times if the class is large, to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate in the “safe” portions of the activity and to produce a variety of comets to observe.

Purchase dry ice in advance by as much as a day (purchase at the higher end of the quantity range if you need to store it overnight) and  store wrapped in insulating material, but not  tightly sealed.  (Frozen CO2 will sublime to gas and can even explode a container that is sealed too tightly.)  A small non-airtight cooler tucked into another lightly-closed, non-airtight cooler works fine, especially if wrapped in a blanket and stored in a cool location.

For the ice-cream topping, choose a small bottle with a squirt-style top full of caramel- or chocolate-flavor syrup for ice-cream sundaes.  Do NOT purchase hard-shell toppings;  stick to sticky sugar syrups.  Be prepared to fend off requests to sample the syrup.

For ammonia, do not use pure ammonia;  simply choose a basic non-sudsy ammonia-based cleanser.  A “sport-top” (squirting-style) water bottle about half-full of ammonia works well and keeps the ammonia away from hands, eyes, and clothing.  However, be sure to clearly label the bottle with the contents.

For trash bags, choose a good, sturdy brand.  They’ll take significant abuse!

Please note carefully that most equipment is required to be either plastic or wood.

  Per comet

For about 3-4 comets, allowing for waste and failures

 

Estimated cost

(2015 prices)

Good sturdy “tall kitchen” garbage bag, cut down one long edge to make a liner for the bowl 1

2

(have a second on hand in case the original tears)

$0.50

($12 for box of 45)

Additional “tall kitchen” garbage bags

3

Open the bags and layer them one inside the other, to create a triple-thick bag

6

Have a second layered set of 3 bags on hand in case of tears

$1.50

($12 for box of 45)

Large plastic mixing bowl, 2-cup plastic measuring cup, tablespoon measure, large wooden spoon

1 of each

Reminder:  for safety, use plastic containers and a wooden spoon

1 of each Bring from home or borrow from volunteers
Water 2 cups

2 quarts on hand

(store in a pitcher for measuring out in 2-cup quantities)

n/a
Sand or fine gravel 2 tablespoons ½ cup zero
Ammonia 

One squirt (about 1 tablespoon)

 

½ cup

$1.50

($10 for 28-ounce bottle)

Ice-cream topping

One squirt (about 1 tablespoon)

 

About ½ cup (Bring at least a 4-ounce container of syrup.) $6.50
Dry ice 2 cups of dry ice, after crushing. About 7-10 pounds of dry ice. $15($1.50 per pound)
Safety goggles

1 pair, adult size

1-2 pair, adult or child size (depending on student age)

1 pair, adult size

1-2 pair, adult or child size (depending on student age)

If not available in classroom—one-time purchase for reuse in many projects. $5 each

 

Heavy work gloves 1 pair, to fit Project Leader 1 pair, to fit Project Leader Use own gloves or borrow from volunteer (a new pair would cost about $10-12)
Total Cost: $39.50

For an easy-to-print version:  Just Supplies Cooking with Kuiper

Chasing Comets

Chasing Comets: Supplies & ResourcesChasing Comets: Supplies & Resources

Supplies and Materials

Below, you’ll find a handy supply document you can download, with shopping lists for small and large groups and a range of cost estimates, depending on how much of the supplies you can acquire from available supplies or donations by participants.   With a minimal outlay, you and your group can experience being comet chasers–observers of comets.

Basically, you need a bunch of badminton birdies for your comet heads—keep in mind you don’t need performance-grade shuttlecocks or even new ones. If your high school has a badminton team, they will have worn-out birdies you can take off their hands.   A grungy, beat-up birdie makes a more realistic comet head.

Chasing Comets

Birdies for Comets

And you need a bunch of ribbon—curling ribbon for the comet tails. The supply sheet estimates ribbon packages at around $8, but if you look at this photo, you’ll see the last time I bought supplies, it was out of the clearance bin at $2. And if you can get one in five of your participants to bring in a roll to share, it won’t cost you a dime.

Chasing Comets

Zoom Out–Yes! Here’s All You Need To Make Comets

The one oddball item is that tulle fabric ribbon for the big comet. This you might have a hard time finding in your junk drawer unless you’ve been helping a bride make wedding tchochkes. But for $10 you can buy enough to make three huge comets. Cut five-yard lengths and tie one end of each to a vane of a single birdie, allowing a few inches of extra length to fan out as the comet’s “coma”. Tulle scrunches up easily, so even a six-inch-wide ribbon will feed through the holes between the birdie’s vanes.

Chasing Comets

Detail–How To Tie Fabric Tails

You should be able to borrow a portable fan and a playground or soccer ball. If you can’t, it will take a roughly $25 expenditure to get those items in stock—a cost you can recoup in part by either donating it to the group you’re working with or simply deducting the expense as part of your cost of volunteering.

And it is presumed you can find a pencil, which makes holding the small model a little easier when you’re doing the demo with the fan;  here’s the trick for hooking the pencil to the comet head:

Chasing Comets

Holder For Fan Experiment

Depending on how good you are at scrounging supplies and locating soccer balls, your costs will range from $10 to $85 for typical group sizes.   The spreadsheet I use has a calculation column to adjust the requirements list for other class sizes  So, if you want a copy of this  fully-functional workbook, “like” the Facebook page & I’ll send you one via a Facebook “message”. (You can also try emailing me through the “contacts” page here, but you’ll get a faster response on FB.)  Your FB contact will be used for nothing other than sending you a file and boosting the “likes”-count on my page.  [Insert maniacal laughter, if desired.]

Meanwhile, you can get the static workbook as a pdf right away:

Just Supplies Chasing Comets

 

Resources and References

Now that you are all excited about comets, here are some fun places to go where you can find more cometary material:

A lovely one-page summary from the Spaceguard Program (sponsored by the European Space Agency) gives a clear description of comet tail structure and dynamics, including a neat animation of what both tails look like as the comet proceeds around the sun. The ion tail streams straight back, while the dust tail is curved a bit as the particles within the dust tail blend movement due to their individual orbits about the sun and the forces of the radiation pressure. Net, both tails roughly point away from the sun, as in our demonstration.

Sweet page from NASA with helpful animations and clear descriptions.

Follow the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, as it aims for the first robotic landing on a cometary nucleus.

Read this:  a “real” science article with a good set of detailed discussions of the types of comet tails and how they work.

Or, try this excellent piece by freelance science writer Craig Freidenrich on the inner workings of comets.

The Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing’s educational site helps with details on the structure of comets.

Explore a public-domain catalog of Solar System images, from Hubble and other spacefarers.

Discover how Oort clouds may be one way star systems interact directly with one another, because the Oort clouds project so far out.

See the invisible part of a comet.

Find out all about radiation pressure.

Plan to catch sight of the meteor shower sponsored by Comet Halley.

Explore the origins of comets at this UC Berkeley site.

Check out NASA’s solar system photo gallery, with images from NASA and European Space Agency exploration missions and telescopes.

Visit the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s educational site, with even more hands-on activities for young astrophysicists. Roam their site for educator workshops and more.

OK, seriously, I’m not the only science blogger keen on comets.

A new comet is incoming this month (May 2014).

Our guy Euler was the first one to suggest that light exerts pressure, but we had to wait over 100 years to get to Maxwell, who proved it, and then another quarter-century went by before some Russians managed to measure radiation pressure. (Also, gotta love Google Books.)

Oh, and by 1915 the proof of radiation pressure made it into Scientific American.

 

 

 

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