MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Chemistry: Making it Real

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Chemistry: Making it Real - Introduction

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Ever wondered what's in toothpaste or how marshmallow Peeps are made? What's so special about those new fabrics that claim to keep you cooler as you work out? Many of the fundamental principles behind designing and making items we use every day are based in the science of chemistry. How better to learn about properties of matter, physical and chemical changes, and simple chemical reactions than through the objects and materials students use every day?


Learning chemistry should start in grade school—or at least it ought to, according to the National Science Education Standards. Elementary grades chemistry learning starts with a macroscopic world of observable phenomena. As students progress, they should move to the abstract world of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles and the symbolic and mathematical world of chemical formulas, equations, and symbols.

In the middle grades, students should examine changes of state, solutions, and simple chemical reactions. They need to develop the knowledge and experience that will allow them to define the properties of chemical compounds and elements. Middle school laboratory investigations of the properties of substances and their changes through various chemical interactions will provide a basis for the high school student to understand diverse types of chemical reactions and their applications.

The National Science Education Standards provides an example of the standards in action in a story of a how a teacher taught the concepts of properties of substances such as boiling point, solubility, and density while encouraging his students to observe, discuss, write, and test ideas—Funny Water.

The resources selected for this publication will help your students understand chemistry at work, using examples that will spark their interest. A basic understanding of chemistry concepts and terminology will prepare them for more abstract studies in chemistry in their high school years and beyond.

And don't forget the importance of laboratory safety - you and your students need to practice "safe science" inside and outside the classroom. One of the best resources we've found is the Connecticut Middle School Science Safety document. We also have blogged about science safety - Safety in the Science Classroom. This podcast and set of resources from NSTA will help you if you have questions about what to do with old chemicals. In addition, MSP2 had a great webinar on Laboratory Safety. Download it for free.

Background Information for Teachers

In this section, we’ve included information on an online course that will improve your content knowledge of chemistry concepts and help you implement inquiry lessons in your classroom. An article from Science Scope describes a teaching method that uncovers students’ misconceptions. Other resources provide a good overview of the chemistry of matter and reactions as well as the evolution of chemistry over the last 100 years. The magazine ChemMatters provides in-depth information on a variety of everyday items. The NSDL Strand Map Service provides guidance on sequencing teaching of topics. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Chemical Reactions map appears below. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. You may also be interested in the States of Matter and the The Chemical Revolution map.

Chem4Kids Don’t let the name of this site fool you—whether you are a student or teacher, it provides a good overview of the chemistry of matter, elements, reactions, and biochemistry. The Matter Section discusses properties of different states of matter such as solids, liquids, gases, and plasma, as well as mixtures and solutions. The Elements Section presents the periodic table and the different elements with families, structures, and properties. This includes halogens, inert gases, metals and others. The Atoms Section explains atomic bonds, ions, atomic structure, compounds, naming atoms and isotopes. The Reactions Section provides details about acids and bases, thermodynamics, reaction rates, catalysts, and stoichiometry. The Biochemistry Section looks at carbohydrates, lipids, amino acid structures, proteins, enzymes, nucleic acids, and metabolism.

Beyond Books: Introduction to Chemistry Concepts This online textbook provides a more in-depth explanation than the Chem4Kids site but is still very understandable.

Will It Float? Student preconceptions are one of the greatest challenges we face as science teachers. This Predict, Explain, Observe, and Explain (PEOE) activity challenges students' preconceived notions about why matter floats or sinks when placed in a liquid. The idea behind this model is to do a demonstration that first confirms students' conceptions followed by a second, similar demonstration that provides discrepant information creating cognitive dissonance. Learning happens as students are forced to modify their conceptions so that their view of how things work is not in conflict with what they are seeing. This article from the middle school professional journal Science Scope, can be downloaded free of charge by members of the National Science Teachers Association.

ChemMatters Magazine ChemMatters is an award-winning magazine for high school students that reveals chemistry at work in everyday life. Each issue provides a teacher's guide with background information for each of the concepts included, follow-up hands-on activities, classroom demonstrations, and additional resources. There is a charge for a subscription, but some articles and all teachers' guides are available for free online. (From American Chemical Society Education.)

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry This site provides a picture of the development of modern chemistry. The prizes cover the whole spectrum of the basic chemical sciences, from theoretical chemistry to biochemistry, and also a number of contributions to applied chemistry.

Chemistry References

This section highlights resources that we consider essential—a fabulous periodic table, a database of chemical compounds, a set of demonstrations of chemical reactions that are just plain spectacular, and, don’t forget, laboratory safety. Articles from the web sites What’s That Stuff? and Science News for Kids can be used as supplemental reading all through the year.

Chemistry & Engineering News: What’s That Stuff? The site explains the history and characteristics of over 20 substances, such as sunscreen, Cheese Whiz, baseballs, fluoride, new car smell, ink, lipstick, bug spray, and licorice. The individual articles are nontechnical for the most part and are presented in a fun way that readers will enjoy. Also, if a reader’s curiosity is sparked, many of the pages offer links to outside sources of additional information.

Science News for Kids This online magazine has weekly articles that explain the science behind topics of interest to middle school students. In addition, there are brainteasers for those who enjoy solving and inventing puzzles, science-fiction composition exercises, and science fair profiles and tips. The GameZone contains a small selection of logic and memory games, implemented as Java applets. The TeacherZone offers materials that bring science topics in the news to the classroom, some of which are related to the feature article of the week. The LabZone features a hands-on activity.

Common Compound Library This site is a searchable database of 800 common compound names and provides information about molecular structure, chemical structure, synonyms, molecular weight, melting point, solubility, and uses, as well as links to related articles, This is a great reference for figuring out what all those crazy compounds in your shampoo are.

Delights of Chemistry—Chemistry Demonstrations Performed in Leeds Students are always impressed by spectacular chemical reactions—most of which can’t be done in the regular classroom. This site includes photos, movies, and explanations of some amazing chemistry demonstrations performed at the University of Leeds. Amazing!

Lessons and Activities

These activities provide students with firsthand experiences in chemical and physical properties of matter, changes in states of matter, and chemical reactions. In addition, interactive online experiences are found at the web sites Acids and Bases: Kitchen Chemistry, Strange Matter, and IPPEX Interactive: Matter. The last resource in this section provides hundreds of games based on chemistry topics.

Source Chemistry Chemistry-related physical science activities and background information are adapted from the former NSF-funded teacher professional development project Operation Chemistry. Some activities are for teachers only, but most can be done in the classroom by students in grades 5-8. Topics are: The Language of Chemistry, Matter and Its Changes, Chemical Reactions, Acids & Bases, Environment, and Density.

Science Experiments at Home Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offers many fun and easy chemistry experiments at this web site. With a few household materials, students can learn about pressure, acids and bases, chemiluminescent chemical reactions, and more. The activities are filled with thought-provoking questions along with concise explanations about the topic presented. The web site provides links to activities dealing with topics in physics as well.

The Accidental Scientist: The Science of Cooking This web site examines the chemistry and biology of cooking. The site's sections highlight the science involved in cooking with or preparing each of these food items: eggs, pickles, candy, bread, seasoning, and meat. Each section offers recipes and instructions for activities that can be conducted at home or in the classroom. In addition, many of the sections provide readings and animated features. For example, the candy section includes an illustrated article about sugar, photo tours of two candy-making businesses, an interactive feature about the temperatures at which different candies are made, and recipes and activity instructions. The site also offers discussion boards, expert answers to cooking questions, and archived web casts about the science of specific foods and drinks.

Mystery Mud: Exploring Changes in States of Matter Join a group of middle-school students on a visit to a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they experiment with mystery mud and learn about the relationships among magnetism, particle motion, and changes in the state of matter.

Acids and Bases: Kitchen Chemistry In this interactive activity from the ZOOM web site, you can search for chemistry clues and experiment with acids and bases in a virtual kitchen.

Strange Matter Are your students familiar with the development and uses of foams and plastics? What about buckyballs and magneto-rheological fluid? At this animated site, a companion to a traveling science center exhibition, students in grades 5-8 can explore materials science. Four sets of activities address, respectively, the structure, properties, processing, and performance of materials. Kids are the guides for these activities, which come equipped with sound effects, games, experiments, and video clips of scientists. In one activity set, called Transform Stuff, students explore how raw materials are converted into products. They load silicon, iron, or carbon into a virtual machine, select the processes to alter their starting material, and then learn about the new substance they have made. The site also supplies an overview of materials science, a teacher’s section with connections to national science standards, and annotated lists of related resources.

IPPEX Interactive: Matter This interactive science module introduces students to many of the basic properties of matter, including atoms, ions, elements, molecules, and density. Students will learn about sinking and floating and do a density lab where they will predict and test which objects sink and which float. Included is information about conversions and scientific notation.

Chemistry Search of Shared Activities This site provides access to 478 chemistry-related games and quizzes that have been developed by K-12 teachers. Students can play matching, word, and concentration games to learn the names and formulas of binary ionic compounds, element symbols, common names of chemicals, and other basic chemistry concepts. The web site also offers quizzes about chemical bonds, a Jeopardy-like game, a Battleship game about balancing equations, and much more. While users can subscribe to customize the activities, hundreds of the activities are free.

Chemistry of Fire(works)

A common chemical reaction is combustion, or burning. As something burns, heat and light are given off. Fire can be devastating, but it can also be spellbinding. These resources help students understand the combustion reaction and also provide insight into how fireworks work.

On Fire In this interactive activity from the NOVA web site, learn about the chemical reactions that take place when things burn.

The Great Hartford Circus Fire Fire can heat our homes and cook our food, but it can also kill us. It is unforgiving when not properly controlled, and it can spread with overwhelming speed when conditions are favorable. This article from ChemMatters magazine is about an uncontrollable fire in a circus tent that killed 167 people and injured hundreds of others in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944. (From American Chemical Society Education.)

Igniting Chemistry in Fireworks With beautiful colors and controlled explosions, fireworks link directly to fundamental concepts taught in basic chemistry classes. The media resources featured in this lesson for grades 6-12 provide a visually rich way to tie together spectral chemistry, combustion, and the nature of fire. Students watch a video segment and read text about the color of fireworks (particularly useful when following a chemistry lab in which powders of elements are placed over a flame to observe their spectral emission). They also watch a video segment and do an interactive activity on the mechanics of a firework, which leads to optional interactive activities for those wanting a slightly more advanced chemistry lesson involving chemical reactions. They wrap up by viewing video segments of many different types of fireworks and explaining the principles of chemistry and pyrotechnics.

Fireworks The history of fireworks, from the discovery of gunpowder in China a thousand years ago to the experiments of modern-day chemists, is recounted in this article. (From What’s That Stuff?)

Chemistry of Sports

These resources take an in-depth look at how chemistry and technology have had a huge impact on all kinds of sports—from golf to paintball.

Science of Hockey In one of a series of resources based on the science in sports, students read about and see video clips of National Hockey League players and coaches as well as a physicist and a chemist. Included is information about ice, the qualities that make it a unique playing surface, why ice is slippery, the mechanics of ice skating, hockey equipment, how players can shoot the puck over 100 miles an hour, checking using physical force, and physical fitness. Links to other sites and mathematics formulas that show how much energy is expended in an open ice hit can also be found.

Golf Balls Since the late 1800s, chemists have been called on to find ways to produce lighter, faster, and durable golf balls. This site traces the chemistry that has transformed the ball and promises to create a ball that will "soar like a cruise missile, hit the ground at a very shallow angle, and roll for up to 40 yards on hard ground." (From What’s That Stuff?)

BBC Hot Topics: Racket Power The power of today's tennis game is only partly generated by the athletes themselves. Much of it comes from their rackets. New designs mean players can hit the ball with more speed and accuracy than ever before. This article discusses how technology has changed the game of tennis.

Artificial Snow Towns that depend on skiing for their income watch the skies for signs of snow. If it doesn't come in sufficient amounts, they can call on companies that make snow. Sometimes snow is needed on movie sets or other indoor sites. Various methods of making snow for different purposes are described here. (From What’s That Stuff?)

Paintball: Chemistry Hits Its Mark The first paintballs were fired by foresters and ranchers to mark trees and cattle. In the 1980s, someone got the idea that it would be more fun to fire paintballs at people than at trees and cows. Thus the sport of paintball was born. In this article from ChemMatters, learn how the one billion paintballs manufactured each year are a product of chemistry and engineering. (From American Chemical Society Education.)

Chemistry in the Kitchen

This section highlights resources that provide explanations of the chemistry behind your favorite chocolate truffle and why you start to cry when you cut up an onion.

Kitchen Chemistry This Discovery Channel web site presents the science behind cooking. Through concise descriptions, users can discover how the kitchen is like a chemistry laboratory and cooking an experiment. The web site explains how adding salt affects the boiling point of water and why beating egg whites affects their texture. Students can learn about common chemical compounds in the kitchen including sugar, starches, fats, and proteins. The web site offers suggestions on how an understanding of chemistry can create new, great food recipes.

BBC Hot Topics: Science of Cooking Food changes color, flavor, and temperature—sure signs of chemistry at work! Read about what’s really happening when you chop onions and start to cry.

Chocolate Rules Learn about the joys of being a chocolate scientist. (From Science News for Kids.)

BBC Hot Topics: The Science of Chocolate This article discusses the research that suggests chocolate may have health benefits, chocolate cravings may be a symptom of addiction, and chocolate contains some of the same chemicals found in recreational drugs.

Marshmallow At this site, students can find out how the marshmallow of today is made and the history behind this squishy treat. (From What’s That Stuff?)

Pulse of the Planet: Bread Preserving This short radio broadcast talks about the best way to keep bread from going stale and why it does in the first place.

Chemistry of Clothes/Clean

Manufacturers have come up with all sorts of amazing new fabrics and ways to keep them clean.

Chemistry and Nanotech Work to Make Carefree Clothing This article talks about the women chemists who invented Never-Iron and Scotchgard and the chemistry behind both processes.

Raincoats The chemistry and materials science of raincoats continue to evolve. As early as the 13th century, South American natives were coating cloth with natural liquid latex to make waterproof footwear and capes. Today, garment makers are working to improve the breathability of waterproof fabrics as well as applying polymer membranes to a wider variety of textiles. (From What’s That Stuff?)

Building a Better Bleach You need to wear your new dark red T-shirt, and there it sits in the dirty clothes hamper. Wait! The washer is loaded and filling with water. Problem solved! You just add the shirt to the load of white shirts, socks, and underwear. With this lighthearted opening, a ChemMatters article discusses the chemistry behind the bleaching process. (From American Chemical Society Education.)

Chemistry in the Bathroom

People spend thousands of dollars each year to keep themselves looking, smelling, and feeling good. These resources help uncover the chemistry in all of those products.

The Aspirin Effect: Pain Relief and More Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAI) drugs are each single molecules from a class of chemical compounds called arachidonic acid pathway inhibitors. This article from ChemMatters magazine takes a close look at the arachidonic acid pathway and the wonderful world of prostaglandin synthesis. (From American Chemical Society Education.)

Putting the Squeeze on Toothpaste Quite a bit of science goes into making toothpaste. Every year, toothpaste companies spend millions of dollars looking for ways to make products that taste better, make your teeth cleaner, and keep you coming back for more. (From Science News for Kids.)

Teeth Whiteners Find out how pastes, gels, and strips that promise to give you a movie-star smile work. (From What’s That Stuff?)

History of Soap and Chemistry This site traces the chemical discoveries beginning in the late 1700s that have led to the array of cleaners on store shelves today. (From The Soap and Detergent Association Kids Corner.)

Shampoos As you walk down the shampoo aisle, the variety of products is staggering. You can select from any number of shampoos that will tame curls, "release" them, "volumize" them, hydrate them, strengthen them, or control their tendency to frizz. Find out the real story behind all those choices. (From What’s That Stuff?)

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Chemistry.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to learn more about a variety of science-related careers including Cosmetics Chemistry (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Chemistry

News about chemistry, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

National Science Education Standards

These excerpts from the National Science Education Standards address topics and experiences students should have in the middle school.

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of

Content Standard B: Physical Science

Properties and changes of properties in matter

  • A substance has characteristic properties, such as density, a boiling point, and solubility, all of which are independent of the amount of the sample. A mixture of substances often can be separated into the original substances using one or more of the characteristic properties.
  • Substances react chemically in characteristic ways with other substances to form new substances (compounds) with different characteristic properties. In chemical reactions, the total mass is conserved. Substances often are placed in categories or groups if they react in similar ways; metals are an example of such a group.
  • Chemical elements do not break down during normal laboratory reactions involving such treatments as heating, exposure to electric current, or reaction with acids. There are more than 100 known elements that combine in a multitude of ways to produce compounds, which account for the living and nonliving substances that we encounter.

Transfer of Energy

  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • In most chemical and nuclear reactions, energy is transferred into or out of a system. Heat, light, mechanical motion, or electricity might all be involved in such transfers.

Content Standard E: Science and Technology

Understandings About Science and Technology

  • Science and technology are reciprocal. Science helps drive technology, as it addresses questions that demand more sophisticated instruments and provides principles for better instrumentation and technique. Technology is essential to science, because it provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable due to factors such as quantity, distance, location, size, and speed. Technology also provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology.
  • Technological designs have constraints. Some constraints are unavoidable, for example, properties of materials, or effects of weather and friction; other constraints limit choices in the design, for example, environmental protection, human safety, and aesthetics.
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science and Technology in Society

  • Technology influences society through its products and processes. Technology influences the quality of life and the ways people act and interact. Technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals and to society. Social needs, attitudes, and values influence the direction of technological development.
  • Science and technology have advanced through contributions of many different people, in different cultures, at different times in history. Science and technology have contributed enormously to economic growth and productivity among societies and groups within societies.
  • Scientists and engineers work in many different settings, including colleges and universities, businesses and industries, specific research institutes, and government agencies.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Kimberly Lightle is the Project Director and resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project.

Please email any comments to

Connect with colleagues at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Copyright June 2007 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 21, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.