With the start of a new school year just around the corner for half the free world, I thought it might be a good idea to share a project that my sixth grade science colleagues and I use in our classrooms with all y’all.

(There’s GOT to be a science teacher out there SOMEWHERE who could use it, right?)

We are teaching a unit on matter right now and our students have spent the better part of the past week using this chemical formula database to identify the elements in the popular products — think toothpaste, deodorant, body wash, sports drinks — that surround us.  After creating a table listing the elements in at least three ingredients in a self-selected product, students then look for patterns in the elements found in their products, the elements found in their bodies, and the elements found in the earth’s atmosphere.

Our goal throughout the project is to introduce kids to the notion that everything in the universe is made up of elements — either standing alone, or more commonly joined together in new substances called chemical compounds.  We are using a metaphor — The Elements are the Pantry of the Universe — to frame the conversation.

Sound like a project that you might be interested in using with students? 

Here’s the packet of handouts that we give to students to guide them through the process:


And here are a few additional element-based resources that your students might find interesting:

Interactive Periodic Table of the Elements


The coolest Periodic Table of the Elements out there today has been created by Theo Gray — a modern day version of a mad scientist that has committed himself to building a collection of physical samples of all of the elements.  We use hard copies of his collection to study elements in class because they are visually stunning.  This link connects to a Flash version of the same collection created by Dow and Popular Science magazine.

Abundance of Elements Graphic

One of the key takeaways from this mini-project is that certain elements appear far more frequently in the universe than others.  Students are being asked to make comparisons between the elements that they find in their products and the elements found in the human body, the universe, the earth’s crust, the earth’s atmosphere and the oceans.  This infographic can help students to make those comparisons.

Theo Gray Tag on Popular Science Site

While it doesn’t look like he’s still writing for Popular Science, Theo Gray — the creator of the Periodic Table that we use in class — was a regular contributor to the site until late 2012.  Each of his pieces is REALLY engaging, presenting a lesson in the elements one dangerous trick at a time.  Think lighting grills with liquid Oxygen and plunging hands into liquid Nitrogen.  Anyone interested in knowing more about how the elements act will dig Gray’s posts.

Many thanks to Kate Kotik, Michael Manholt and Jason Dapkevich — my brilliant co-workers — for sharing their ideas with me.  This project is a simple, straightforward example of the role that collaboration can play in changing practice.   


Related Radical Reads:

Materials for My #scichat Homies: Student Project Challenges

Tinkering with Scribble Machines

Teaching Innovation with the Curiosity Box

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