Lab Notes

The Everyday Science for Kids Blog

New Series in the Works for Teen Girls

August 23, 2018

We're developing a series specifically for teen girls as part of Everyday Science for Kids. Getting more and more excited about it; and thinking of all the collaboration that can ensue! (My program focuses specifically on consumer product chemistry). Here’s my ideas for sessions so far. Not sure just yet how we’ll implement it yet.

  • Cosmetics Chemistry: The Beauty of Science
  • Engineering the Package: Cardboard, Glass, Plastic, Paper, or Bioplastics?
  • Fact Versus Crap, Consumer Products Edition: Science-based Reasoning in the Era of Information Overload
  • Body Positive, Body Shaming: The Manipulation of Self-Image for Profit
  • Don’t be so Spoiled: The Science of Preservatives
  • Race to the Bottom: The Marketing of Toxic Products and Disparate Impact on Women of Color
  • The Intersection of Science and Social Justice Game Day! Try Your Hand at Collaborative and Science-based Games
  • Kinky, Curly, Wavy, Straight: The Science of Human Hair
  • The ‘S’ in STEM: Science Jobs in the Cosmetics, Personal Care, and Cleaning Products Industries

Event Recap from Saturday, August 18, 2018

August 18, 2018

Detroit Artists Test Lab turned out to be the perfect venue for our event - enough space between the tables for lots of room to move around, plenty of light, easy parking, plus a sink near where we were working.   I arrived at 9:30 a.m. to set up, as did my lab assistant. I usually hire a local high school student to assist with setting up the stations for the kids and helping out as needed with conducting experiments and demonstrations.  I'm always amazed by how much 'stuff' a mobile science event requires!  Books, potions, beakers, bottles - and this time, I needed bring a microwave (more on why later)!  We always bring a selection of science-related toys, games, and puzzles, too, in case we have any down-time or waiting periods. The teens enjoyed a game of periodic table Jenga and the younger kids did puzzles while we waited to begin the event. 


We started out with introductions and our icebreaker activity (click here for the 'Dicebreaker' activity we used and other great getting-to-know-you ideas) - kids had dice at their stations, rolled one of their dice, and answered a question based on the number they rolled (for example, 'If you could spend the day with any fictional character, who would it be?').  The kids are allowed to take their dice home, and there are math games to play inside their take-home binders.

Then, we went over a few lab safety rules, and we passed around the safety goggles and lab coats. The children generally are not handling any toxic materials at our events, but practicing lab safety is a good habit to get into (click here to see our Lab Safety Rules).  I showed the kids a bottle of hydrochloric acid (an odorless, colorless liquid that is also a highly corrosive acid) that I'd be using in a later demonstration, and explained how in science class, things can look like food or water, but aren't! 


We then started with our first activity. I asked the kids if they'd ever seen artificial snow at a toy store or as part of a holiday or winter display.  I gave the kids a cup of water and a cup of artificial snow, and asked what did they think would happen if we mix them together? Some suggested it would dissolve, some thought it would 'turn into snow'.  We talked about the different uses for 'fake snow', which is sodium polyacrylate powder, like motionless waterbeds, and grow-in-water toys.  Then, I passed out infant diapers, and asked the children if they had any idea how diapers could be related to fake snow.   I gave them a full cup of water with yellow food coloring added, and asked them if they thought the diaper could handle all that water without leakage. After tearing opening the soaked, heavy diaper, the kids saw that disposable diapers also contain the polymer sodium polyacrylate - the fake snow! (Click here for a great diaper experiment.) We discussed what a polymer is (click here for a kid-friendly page about polymers), and then we did the same procedures but with swim diapers.  The children discussed why it wouldn't be a good idea for a baby or toddler to wear a regular diaper in a pool.  We also talked about other polymers, both synthetic and natural.  I showed the kids a plan coated with Teflon, a synthetic polymer.


Next was snack time! We had lemonade in our special periodic table cups, and pretzel crisps.   I always strategically choose our snacks to introduce a chemistry-related concept or factoid.  I asked kids if they had any idea what the connection could be between pretzels and....soap! The answer is lye (sodium hydroxide) - the soap-making (saponification) process is basically the reaction of a fatty acid with a base (lye), and traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in a lye solution before they are baked (learn more about lye and pretzels by clicking here).  Liquid soaps are made with potassium hydroxide, while bar soaps are made with sodium hydroxide.  No lye remains in the finished soap - or pretzel!


Next, we discussed the difference between soaps and detergents, and why detergents are more widely available than true soaps. I brought out a bar of Dove soap, a bar of Ivory soap, and a bar of Castile soap.   I pointed out that Dove is not actually true soap, but is detergent-based. That's why the box says 'beauty bar', not 'soap'.  We added all three bars to a bucket of water and observed that the Ivory bar was the only one that floated.  We then put the Ivory soap bar in the microwave! I asked the kids what they thought would happen if we heated up the soap.  The kids were amazed at the transformation of that bar of soap! (You can recreate the Ivory soap experiment at home - click here). Everyone wanted to touch it, but we waited until we were sure it was cool enough. We broke a fresh bar of Ivory soap in half to see what it looked like, and tried to do the same with the other bars of soap.  I then read aloud the chapter about Ivory Soap from Lucky Science: Accidental Discoveries from Gravity to Velcro.  After that, I showed the kids a Super Soaker gun, and explained that it, too, was 'discovered' by accident (learn more about NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson and his invention of the Super Soaker here).


Each child had 5 cups, and each cup was filled with yellow water (we pretended the cups were 'toilets').  We added one type of 'paper' to each cup:

  • Huggies baby wipe
  • Brawny paper towel
  • Seventh Generation 100% recycled toilet paper
  • 3-ply Ultra Soft Quilted Northern
  • Bamboo Toilet Paper (made of bamboo)

The children stirred the cups (to simulate flushing) and compared how well the papers dissolved.  We determined that the recycled toilet paper dissolved the best.  We discussed how Kleenex and paper towel are not meant to be break apart when wet, but are supposed to stay strong and absorbent (so you can wipe up messes and wipe runny noses), and that nothing should be flushed down the toilet except waste and toilet paper, especially in homes with older plumbing.  We all agreed that the bamboo toilet paper was not very soft and did not break up well in the water.


Before we did our antacid experiments, we learned about the stomach, stomach acid, and human digestion. I explained that the stomach organ is not really at the belly button, but is higher up in the abdomen.  The esophagus connects the throat to the stomach, and that's where the term 'heartburn' comes from - the pain feels like it's in the center of the chest, near the heart (click here for important information from the American Heart Association on distinguishing heart burn from a heart attack).  Unfortunately, I forgot to bring our chocolate graham crackers - we were going to use ziplock bags, graham crackers, lemon juice, and water to help explain how the stomach works (you can find that experiment here).

Next, we talked about why people get heartburn, and the different types of antacids.  Click here for more details about our antacid experiments.  The kids really enjoyed seeing the 'worms' that result from adding Gaviscon to an Ernlenmeyer flask full of hydrochloric acid.  And the color changes that resulted from our Milk of Magnesia experiment were dazzling!   Our last antacid activity involved Alka-Seltzer.  After we saw the fizzy reaction when the tablets are added to water, we discussed acids and bases in more detail.  To really drive the point home, we made baking soda/vinegar 'bombs' with ziplock bags - the kids added baking soda to the middle of a paper towel, folded it into a little packet, added it to the ziplock bag, poured in some vinegar, and lastly closed the bag as quickly as possible.  Then we threw the bags on the floor  and waited for the BANG!  I explained that carbon dioxide produced from the chemical reaction of the baking soda and vinegar caused the bag to eventually explode.


I was hoping for a better turnout, but we had enough people to still have fun. We had preschool, elementary, and high school students in attendance.

Parents and caregivers are always welcome to attend our events with their children.  I was very pleased that adults, teens, and children alike enjoyed the event so much. I'm looking forward to bringing the program to more locations, and hope to offer Everyday Science for Kids as a weekly afterschool program in the near future.

Upcoming 'Getting to Know You' Events!

October 8, 2018

9th Annual ARISE!Detroit Neighborhoods Rising Summit. This community event will offer residents opportunities, strategies and resources to improve their neighborhoods. The summit will showcase exhibitors with programs to support community improvement efforts in such things as literacy, education, youth programs, etc.  This would be a great opportunity for your youth group, faith-based group, block club, non-profit or other community organization to learn more about bringing the Everyday Science for Kids program to your group.

We're also hosting a Lights on Afterschool event at The Commons Detroit on Thursday, October 25.  Organized by the Afterschool Alliance, the 19th annual Lights On Afterschool is the only nationwide event celebrating afterschool programs and their important role in the lives of children, families and communities. The effort has become a hallmark of the afterschool movement and generates media coverage across the country each year.  Our Lights on Afterschool event, free to families, includes hands-on science experiments, games, and puzzles, food, swag, and more information about our program. We'll also have academic and career information available for families about STEM jobs in the cosmetic science and consumer products industries.

The Commons Detroit is a unique combination coffee bar and coin laundry that operates in the storefront space of 7900 Mack Avenue, MACC Development’s new multipurpose building.

Pop Science: Can, Glass Bottle, Plastic Bottle, or McDonald's Coke? Which is Best?

December 3, 2018

Do you prefer one over the other? I certainly do! I'm a huge fan of McDonald's Coke.  I don't drink it very often, because as we all know soda isn't good for us (or 'pop', as we say in Michigan!)  I think there's definitely a hierarchy of pop goodness: for me, it's McDonald's, followed by can and glass bottle (these two are tied), and lastly, plastic bottle.  I have a friend, however, that insist the 20 ounce plastic bottle is golden, and McDonald's Coke is meh.  But why? Does the packaging affect the taste of the product inside, or are there other factors affecting the taste differences? Let's find out!

The Bubbles

The bubbles in soda come from carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in water (soda is roughly 85% water).  Carbon dioxide gas dissolved in water at a low concentration (0.2–1.0%) creates carbonic acid (H2CO3).  Here's the chemical equation for the reaction:

H2O(l) + CO2(g) ⇌ H2CO3(aq)

Carbonic acid is not flavorless; it's slightly tart.  So, the level of carbonation in soda definitely affects the flavor.  At McDonald's, insulated tubing is run from the back refrigeration unit all the way to the front and drive-through units.  The soda water is constantly recirculated through this tubing system so that it can remain between 33-38 degrees (just above freezing) at all times.  Keeping the water chilled in this way is necessary to maintain optimal carbonation level, which means that it can become more carbonated.  Optimal carbonation not only makes for a crisper, fizzier drink, but as we stated, carbonation actually has a flavor.  People who do not prefer McDonald's Coke may not enjoy the increased carbonic acid flavor of a more carbonated drink (For a more detailed discussion of how we taste carbonic acid, go to Arrow Scientific's article 'How People Taste Carbonation'.)

Plastic bottles, however, are actually slightly porous and can 'degas'.  While manufacturers do dissolve the same volume of carbon dioxide into both their plastic bottle and aluminum can sodas, the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soda bottles is somewhat more CO2-permeable than aluminum. That means the fizz will leak out of a plastic bottle of Coke at a higher rate than it does from a can. Over 12 weeks of storage in poor conditions (such as a hot place with direct sunlight), soda in plastic bottles can lose up to 15 percent of its carbon dioxide.  Glass bottles are far less gas permeable than aluminum cans or plastic bottles, but exposure to light can be an issue.

The Packaging Material

McDonald's Coke is served in a disposable cup; the soda is consumed right after it is served from the machine.  When consumed in this way, there is really no time for the product to lose its carbonation or absorb flavors from the cup.  However,  despite enormous advances in can-lining technology, canned soda can dissolve bits of metal through microscopic holes in the coating, affecting the flavor. The degree to which this occurs is a function of storage time and conditions—the reactions happen more quickly if the can is warm. The problem was worse when cans were made of steel, but some people are still capable of detecting the aluminum flavor. 

Sealed glass bottles are both impermeable and flavor-neutral.   However, exposing glass bottles to sunlight in poor storage conditions can definitely affect the flavor of the product inside.  Acetaldehyde, a degradation byproduct formed when PET plastic melts or degrades, might migrate into soda packaged in plastic bottles. The FDA regulates this kind of potential chemical contact, but even minute, allowable amounts could theoretically alter the flavor.

While the Coca-Cola company itself maintains strict uniformity in processes in all of its worldwide bottling facilities,  it does concede that exposure to light and how long the product sits on store shelves may affect the taste.

The Syrup

Coke is basically carbonated water and Coke's own syrup formula.  Party stores, 7-11's, small restaurants, ice cream shops, and other retailers get their syrup in a bag box. In contrast, McDonald’s sells a LOT of Coke. They sell so much coke that they don’t need to buy the syrup in those small bag boxes.   McDonald’s restaurants get syrup delivered from a tanker truck and store it in a stainless steel cylinder.  And because they sell a lot it, doesn’t sit around as long. So the Coke syrup at McDonald’s is fresher than their competitors. Fresher syrup makes better tasting Coke.

The Cleanliness of the Soda Machine

When comparing McDonald's Coke to that of a local restaurant, one factor that might affect the taste is the cleanliness of the soda dispensing machine. It's a gross thing to think about, but letting syrup sit in hoses and machines allows it to chemically degrade and for bacteria to grow. Keeping everything clean and not sitting around for too long also keeps the product fresh and tasting good.

The Water

Given that soda is roughly 85% water, it's only as good as the water used to make it.  Reverse osmosis filtered water definitely makes for a better-tasting soda.

The Cheating Factor

Every once in a great while, there are businesses who scam by having a Coke or Pepsi machine, but use knock-off, cheaper syrup to make their product.  Soda companies, of course, keep tight control over this practice by inspecting their retailers, assessing heavy fines, and legal action.  When your Coke or Pepsi just doesn't taste right, maybe the business has a dirty machine, improper carbonation - or maybe they're peddling fake soda.  More than 30 years ago, my mom worked for a small ice cream shop that was fined more than $90,000 for using 'fake' Coke syrup!

'Flushable' Wipes and Fatbergs

February 27, 2019

       The Everyday Science for Kids program focuses on the exploration of things kids encounter in their day to day lives - especially consumer products like toilet paper!  This past summer, we experimented with the flushability of various paper and non-paper products down a makeshift 'toilet'.  Kids compared the flushability of a store-brand 2-ply tissue, Ultra Plush 3 ply Quilted Northern, 100% recycled content toilet paper, bamboo toilet paper, Kleenex, and finally, baby wipes.  The kids concluded that 100% recycled TP dissolves most easily, while baby wipes did not dissolve at all.  They essentially discovered on their own that NOTHING should go down the toilet except toilet paper  - even the Kleenex took longer to dissolve than any of the toilet papers. 

     Toilet paper is designed to break down easily when wet, and is biodegradable.  But Kleenex is designed to stay strong in the presence of a runny nose,  meaning they don't break down as easily in sewage pipes. Baby wipes, on the other hand, aren't made of paper at all, but are considered 'nonwoven'.  Nonwoven fabric is a fabric-like material made from fibrous materials like cellulose from wood pulp, and sometimes reinforced with polymers like viscose, bonded together by chemical, mechanical, heat, or solvent treatment.   Wipes may include man-made fibers (plastics) like polyethylene or polypropylene for extra strength. 

     There's another category of wipes, too: those marketed as 'flushable'. These wipes, like non-flushable baby wipes, are made from non-woven materials, but they don't  have the non-biodegradable plastic reinforcement fibers. 

Wipes are causing big headaches for wastewater officials across the country because they're clogging up pipes and forming fatbergs, resulting in millions of dollars of damage to sewage infrastructure, roads - and basements.  So, what's a fatberg? A fatberg is a congealed mass in a sewer system formed by the combination of non-biodegradable solid matter, such as wet wipes, and congealed grease and fat.  A 2017 fatberg discovered in London was horrifyingly  130 tons, a football field long, and the size of 11 double-decker buses!  This wasn't the only fatberg ever found in London's Victorian-era pipes - not by a long shot - it's just the record-breaker thus far.   Fatbergs are a huge problem in cities across the U.S. too.  A  100-foot-long, 11-foot-wide, 6 foot tall fatberg weighing about 19 tons wreaked havoc in Michigan's Macomb County this past September and cost over $100,000 to remove.

Question: If raw sewage is somewhat alkaline, could the addition of lipids (fats) down drains mean that saponification (the conversion of fat or oil into soap and alcohol by the action of heat in the presence of aqueous alkali) is occurring, making fatbergs even harder?

     Wipes makers like Kimberly Clark have been hit with multiple lawsuits from municipalities facing down the wrath of fatberg monsters, with calls for no wipes to be marketed as flushable until international flushability standards can be put in place with testing from an independent testing body.  Wipes  companies have generally remain unscathed thus far, though - they claim that their flushable wipes are not to blame for cities' sewage woes, but rather, 'irresponsible flushing' on the part of consumers.  Companies claim that consumers are improperly flushing wipes (like baby wipes) that are not labeled as flushable, and it's this type of wipe contributing to fatbergs.  They also claim that cash-strapped cities are just looking for a way to pass some of the cost of dealing with aging, ineffective pipes onto deep-pocketed corporations.  Currently, the wipes companies self-test their products for flushability and self-regulate.   BREAKING NEWS:  Apparently the U.K. has developed national flushability standards, and one brand has received its 'Fine to Flush' stamp of approval -the wipes are made from 100 percent paper tissue, unlike conventional wet wipes which typically include plastic or wood pulp.  Read more about that here.)

     Wipes are finding their way into sewage pipes more often these days because the use of disposable wipes has skyrocketed.  Worldwide, the size of the disposable wipes market is expected to hit $9.35 billion dollars by 2022.  It used to be that wipes were only used for diaper changes (hard to believe that baby wipes didn't become a fixture on store shelves until the early 1990s), but now,  applications other than baby care now account for about 50% of sales in the wipes category.  Wipes are used for household cleaning and disinfecting, pet care, pain relief product application, cosmetics, and personal hygiene.  

     Macomb County has graciously donated a portion of its fatberg to Wayne State University for research.   Utilizing an $80,000 grant from the National Science Foundation,  the University will use real-time video, pressure data and advanced chemical analysis to advance the understanding of the physical and chemical structure of such blockages.  Hopefully, the research will reveal exactly what type of wipes are in the fatberg - I suspect that plenty of flushable wipes will be discovered!

     Wayne State plans to collaborate with the Michigan Science Center to increase awareness and understanding of the impacts of sewer backups by creating an educational centerpiece for the museum about these types of blockages and actions people can take to mitigate them.  I can't wait for the fatberg exhibit! Because, as Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said, 'This fatberg is somehow morbidly interesting!'













Happy Pi Day!

March 13, 2019

According to Cornell mathematics professor Steven Strogatz, "Pi appears in both the statement of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the Schrödinger wave equation, which capture the fundamental behavior of atoms and subatomic particles. In short, pi is woven into our descriptions of the innermost workings of the universe."

     I celebrated 313 Day by working to expand the impact of the Everyday Science for Kids program in the city of Detroit.  I met with Long Luo, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Wayne State University, and we're excited about collaborating to bring chemistry and science education to more Detroit students.  The WSU Chemistry Department wants to be involved in the surrounding community and promote a love of science, and Professor Luo and I are going to work together to organize and promote Everyday Science for Kids' afterschool outreach events. 

     It is important to me to keep the program at little to no cost for families to increase access for children who might otherwise not have opportunities to attend an after school STEM program or camp.  We also discussed how to ease barriers to attendance for families that have transportation issues.  Presenting the program within school buidings is a possibility; that way, children are already at the program's location, and parents know their children are spending after school hours in a safe, educational environment.  Another option is to work on establishing funding for transportation to events that are held at the University - a combination of both is also a possibility.   

     I'm excited about the possibilities and the outlook of the Everyday Science for Kids program - I hope you are, too!  Feel free to reach out with suggestions or questions at [email protected]