Thursday, November 29, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Elemental Ornaments

In this week's book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, one of the ways Eddy calms himself down is by reciting the elements from the periodic table. Some of the words he recites like chlorine and iron) are probably familiar, while others (scandium!) are...not so familiar.

All matter (everything that takes up space and has mass) is made up of the elements that Eddy recites. (Check out this video for a very catchy and kid-friendly introduction to this concept.) They're the building blocks of everything around you, the building blocks of YOU. It's just simple differences in the way they're connected and combined that make H2O (water) a vital part of life, but H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) highly hazardous.

So let's build a few models to see what they look like! For this week's activity, you'll need large gumdrops (or colored marshmallows, or foam balls) and toothpicks. We'll use the same color code that chemists do for their models:

Black = carbon
White = hydrogen
Red = oxygen
Blue = nitrogen (Okay, these are purple in the photos since I didn't have blue.)
Green = chlorine
Yellow = sulfur
Orange = phosphorus

Here are some easy ones you can try:

And here are a few that are a little trickier:

In these models, each gumdrop represents one atom. Almost all atoms have tiny particles called electrons that they can use to connect to other atoms. In these models, the toothpicks represent bonds that hold the atoms together. The bonds are formed by the atoms sharing those electrons with each other.

For advanced learners: Notice how every different element has a certain number of bonds. For hydrogen, it's always got just one toothpick coming out if it. For carbon, it's always four. Three for nitrogen, one for chlorine, and usually two for oxygen. Sulfur gets tricky (two or four) and phosphorus usually has three.

Can you design your own molecule that follows these rules? Can you make bigger, more complicated molecules like sugar (sucrose)? How many gumdrops would you need to model even a small section of DNA?

Have fun making molecules!


  1. That looks like fun! And my kids are usually up for anything that involved both building AND candy. :)

  2. I think my son would love this. Thank you!

  3. This is brilliant for tactile learners. And yummy.

  4. Fun, we'll have to try this one out.

  5. Is it too early to have you kids identify the polar compounds?