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Earth Day: Inspire Your Students’ Interest in a STEM-Related Career with Hands-On Activities and Experiments

Earth Day header graphic

Earth Day is a perfect opportunity to get your students engaged in a conversation about conservation and sustainability. By incorporating hands-on activities and experiments that take place beyond a book into your curriculum, you can help your students connect the dots between the lab and the real world. When your students visualize data through real-world applications, they are better able to understand the root causes behind issues and engage in critical thinking.

When students make these connections and develop a genuine concern about the issues, they will be more likely to engage in STEM-related fields and careers to find the solutions. Nearly all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require at least some background in STEM1, which includes environmental science and chemistry. Get students ready for their next step by creating opportunities for students to investigate real-world situations that provide a platform to develop further into a STEM career.

Here are two helpful activities, suggested by a couple of our scientists, that you can do with your students this Earth Day.

Use the Power of Cookies to Demonstrate the Impacts of Coal Mining

by Colleen McDaniel

For six years, Colleen McDaniel taught biology and AP environmental science in Spring Branch ISD, located in Houston, Texas. Colleen earned her Master’s degree in Science Education from Montana State University, and her thesis concentrated on project-based learning in an AP2 classroom.

One activity I enjoyed when I was teaching biology was Cookie Mining. In this common and easily adaptable activity, students simulate a mining activity using store-bought chocolate chip cookies and common household items such as toothpicks and paper clips. This experiment not only helps raise student awareness of environmental issues but also touches on a variety of subjects, including environmental science, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

This experiment is perfect for non-science majors because it provides a simple and tactile way to demonstrate the concept of mining while giving students visual evidence about the impacts of mining operations. Here’s a basic outline of the activity:

  1. Students are first asked to buy “equipment” (typically flat and sharp-edged toothpicks as well as paper clips) for their projects with either fake or imaginary money. Here, you have an opportunity to demonstrate to students the economics of mining.
  2. Using only the tools they buy, students then “mine” the cookie for chocolate chips, extracting the chips and returning any cookie fragments to the original site in an attempt to return the land to its pre-mined state.
  3. Once the mining and reclamation is done, students then calculate whether or not they were able to make a profit. To do this, they consider variables such as chocolate chip worth as well as the costs of tools, reclamation, and mining.

To add even more depth to this experiment, you can have students consider the more complex elements of mining. For instance, you can introduce the concept of ore quality by having students compare cookie brands for the number of chocolate chips per cookie or the crumbliness of the cookie. Students can also measure and compare the production of “tailings,” which are unusable ore gained in mining that need to be separated from the valuable ore. Comparing different cookie brands also helps students understand that mines differ, both in terms of how much coal they can produce, as well as how much environmental damage they can cause.

This activity blends environmental science with engineering while demonstrating economic lessons and the overhead of how mining works. Because it can be adapted to your needs, this experiment is beneficial regardless of whether you’re utilizing it for non-science majors or for AP2 students.

Reveal the True Colors of Spinach with Paper Chromatography

by Elaine Nam, Ph.D.

Elaine earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Washington. As the Director of Chemistry at Vernier, she is involved in writing lab experiments, training teachers, and developing new products for chemistry.

Each year, the American Chemical Society (ACS) promotes a community-based program called Chemists Celebrate Earth Week (CCEW). This celebration takes place during the week of Earth Day with different themes for each year. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Take Note: The Chemistry of Paper.”

One of the goals of CCEW is to help build awareness of chemistry at the local level with your community. One practical activity for this year’s theme is paper chromatography, which can be used with all ages. In this simple activity, pigments are extracted from plants to show the different molecules that contribute to the color of the plant. Spinach is a great example.

The pigments extracted from spinach contain a variety of molecules, such as chlorophylls, xanthophyll, and β-carotene, which can be separated using paper chromatography with a suitable solvent. Here’s an example of how these molecules separate:

  • β-carotene is generally carried the farthest because it is highly soluble in the solvent and forms no hydrogen bonds with the chromatography paper fibers.
  • Xanthophyll, which contains oxygen, does not travel quite as far with the solvent because it is less soluble than β-carotene and forms some hydrogen bonds with the paper.
  • Chlorophylls bind more tightly to the paper than the other two molecules, so chlorophylls travel the shortest distance.

Paper chromatography is a good way to introduce students to the molecular properties of plants. With this method, they will be able to observe how the pigments of a plant will physically separate on paper due to intermolecular forces. Essentially, you can use this experiment to demonstrate to students the relationship between paper and chemistry.

Prepare the Scientists of Tomorrow

Employing hands-on activities and experiments to foster critical thinking and non-routine problem solving skills is increasingly important. Students develop the capability to construct and evaluate evidence-based arguments as they collect and analyze data—an ability that is applicable to any STEM-related field. Over the next 10 years, the demand for scientists and engineers is expected to increase 4x the rate as other occupations3, and these occupations require a working knowledge and practice in research and investigation.

Want to take these experiment ideas even further? Vernier offers student-ready experiments in a wide variety of subjects, and our data-collection technology is so versatile that it can be used in nearly all scientific disciplines. Help your students gain practical, relevant data-collection and analysis experience that they can use wherever they go next.

  1. Business Center for a College- and Career-Ready America
  2. AP and Advanced Placement Program are registered trademarks of the College Entrance Examination Board, which was not involved in the production of and does not endorse this product.
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