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The Joy of Chemistry — A Unit in Photos

By Alycia Zimmerman on February 29, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Back in high school, "chem" was a four-letter word to me — this Eve had no desire to hang out with that Atom! I never would have imagined that over fifteen years later, molecular chemistry  would be one of my favorite units to teach. See how our exploratory unit unfolded with my photo essay from the lessons.


Chemistry in 3rd Grade? Why, Why, Why?!

I did not begin our science unit with the intention of tackling ionic and covalent bonding or electron configurations. I began with the standards-based plan to cover the states of matter, phase changes, and reactions. However, as we worked through the regular sequence of lessons, my students’ questions became a powerful force. Why exactly does salt change the freezing point of water? Why does ice expand as it freezes? Why do water molecules stay together? Why do different liquids have different boiling points?

As my students’ questions piled up, I realized that this was my chance to take on a student-interest-driven unit of study. Never before were all of my students so demandingly curious about an academic subject. There was a powerful spirit of chemical curiosity in the air, and I felt compelled to respond to their questions. I got the green light from my wonderfully flexible principal to take an academic detour, picked up some middle school chemistry books to brush up on the subject, and we were off on our exploration of Why!


Exploration 1: What’s Inside an Atom?

In order to understand why atoms behave the way they do, my students needed to learn about the three main subatomic particles: electrons, neutrons, and protons.

A chart about the parts of an atom.  Atoms Family Song Lyrics

My students spontaneously adopted "The Atoms Family" song as our class anthem. I would hear them singing it at recess and as they headed to the bus each day. You can download the song lyrics at the The Science Spot. (Tip: Click on any photo in this post to enlarge the image.)

Jake makes a candy atom. An edible atom.

Next my students made edible models of atoms. We used mini marshmallows for the protons and neutrons, and raisins for the electrons. (To dye half of the marshmallows, we dipped them in a solution of food coloring and water and let them drip dry on wax paper.) We wrapped the nucleus with plastic baggies, and then punctured the bags with toothpicks to hold the electrons in place. Above is a fluorine atom with nine raisin electrons, nine blue marshmallow protons, and nine white marshmallow neutrons.

We also watched this Study Jams! video about subatomic particles.


Exploration 2: Meeting the Periodic Table of Elements

Once my students understood the basic parts of an atom, they were ready to explore the different atoms that make up elements. My students quickly noticed that it’s difficult to keep track of all of the elements without an organized system. Several students started making their own charts and tables to keep track. They were quite happy to see that the work was already done for them when I introduced the Periodic Table of Elements.

Periodic Table Chart  Periodic Table Notebook Page

My students color-coded their periodic tables in their notebooks as they explored groups and periods. My students also enjoyed exploring the Periodic Table of Videos by the University of Nottingham. They post videos of experiments and explanations for each element.

Chart How to Read the Periodic Table Periodic Table Playing Card Project

My students personified their favorite elements to create Periodic Table playing cards. We used Basher Books' The Periodic Table: Elements With Style for inspiration. (Their Web site is also a fun resource.)


Exploration 3: The Mighty Mini Electrons

Sprightly little electrons are so important for understanding how atoms behave around one another, so we spent several lessons learning about various models for picturing electron energy levels.

Drawing Bohr Diagrams Chart  Drawing Lewis Structures Chart


Exploration 4: Ionic Bonding With Salt

Sodium chloride (table salt) provided a relatable context for learning about ionic bonding. My students were surprised when they observed that all of their salt grains were actually tiny cubes. They explored why salt takes this shape, and they realized it has to do with the bonding pattern between sodium and chloride.

Salt Supplies Salt Building Supplies

Here you can see the supplies for our salt exploration. My students began with cups of coarse salt, a hand lens, and black paper squares. When they were ready to begin building their sodium chloride "molecules," each table received a bowl with gumdrops and toothpicks.

Observing salt Sodium Chloride model

I used this lesson plan from the American Chemical Society to guide my students through an exploration of the ionic bonding that occurs between sodium and chloride molecules. I adapted their student worksheet to create a single foldable page for my students' science notebooks. After my students understood the mechanics of ionic bonding, they used small and large gumdrops to build models of sodium chloride crystals. (The larger gumdrops represent negative chlorine ions, and the smaller gumdrops represent positive sodium ions.)


Exploration 5: Building Covalent Molecules

We first explored covalent bonding on the computer with an interactive molecule-building applet. Then my students worked in pairs to build interesting molecules using candy.

Two students show off their finished caffeine molecule.

We used gumdrops, marshmallows, and toothpicks to build molecular models. (We used marshmallows for the smaller hydrogen atoms.) The students chose their molecules from a set of molecule cards that I printed from MakeItMolecular.com


The students labeled their models and created "Key Cards" explaining how they color coded their molecules. The student on the right shows off his ethanol molecule. The other photo shows the card for his molecule.

We hung the students' molecular models from the hallway ceiling. 


Exploration 6: Polymer Slime Time!

Polymers are fun molecules to explore with kids. From the playground tire swing to silly putty, children have plenty of experiences with polymers. “Exploring the properties of a cross-linked polymer” (i.e., playing with slime!) was an enjoyable way to end our molecular chemistry unit.

Polymer Chart 1  

It was so exciting to watch how my students applied their understanding of molecules and molecular interactions to understand the mechanics of cross-linking polyvinyl alcohol!


To save time and have reliable results, I bought a slime-making kit from Steve Spangler Science. There are plenty of recipes for making your own polymer goop, however. The Science Bob recipe uses white glue and Borax, and the Steve Spangler recipe uses PVA and Borax. I modeled the cross-linking action between the PVA polymer strands with long chains of paper clips. This really helped my visual learners understand the reaction.

Playing with polymers!  


Taking a detour through the world of chemistry was well worth the time and effort. I've never seen my students quite so motivated and passionate about a subject. Many of them have continued with independent research projects on chemistry topics that are particularly interesting to them. I am thrilled that I was able to help build the background knowledge that my students needed to pursue their independent research. Exploring everything from greenhouse gases to nuclear fusion, my young chemists are off to a great start with their own research!

Nuclear Fusion Poster

One student's independent research projects.

Additional Resources

In taking this detour, I drew on a number of excellent resources. I hope some of them are helpful as you plan your own chemistry activities.

  • My unit would not have been possible without the incredible resources that science teacher Liz LaRosa created and shared on her Web site and blog. I used both her student notebook pages and her PowerPoint presentations with many of my lessons.
  • Mr. Enns, another science teacher, also has some very helpful PowerPoint presentations on his Web site. I particularly liked his presentation on atoms, elements, and the periodic table.
  • BrainPOP has over a dozen relevant animations explaining molecular chemistry for visual learners.
  • The Science Spot has even more ideas for chemistry unit projects. I used their Adopt an Element project idea with a small group of students as an extension.
  • Micron puts out STEM lesson plans on a wide range of topics. I found their lesson about atoms and molecules particularly helpful.

Comments (6)

The poster is actually nuclear fission not fusion...

These ideas are absolutely brilliant and engaging. Perfect for STEM!

Desiree, thanks for the compliment! I hope the ideas work for your students. Best, Alycia

Thanks for sharing your ideas! I really like how you made the Molecule Museum. It is a great way to show off what the students made! These ideas are really hands on, and I am sure that the students had a good time doing them!

Kimberly Bunge

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