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Elementary Science

Creating Environmental Awareness: Styrofoam

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Katarina Lincalis Katarina Lincalis 2340 Points

I recently shadowed an employee of the Maryland Science Center as part of a Science Methods course. I helped do a demonstration that really gave me a new perspective on just how bad Styrofoam is for our environment. This demo is something that could definitely be used in the classroom as an interesting introduction to environmental science, polymers, or even chemistry. The demo was relatively simple. All we used were Styrofoam objects (packing peanuts, Styrofoam modeling head, etc.), an empty fish tank, a small beaker, and Acetone. The demo was introduced by explaining that Styrofoam is a polymer filled mostly with air and certainly not biodegradable. We filled the fish tank with about a quarter inch of Acetone (you can note that Acetone is what nail polish remover is made of), and placed the Styrofoam objects into the Acetone. The objects bubble and appear to dissolve. In fact, the air is being released from the objects and all that remains is a taffy-like goo. At this point, the demonstrator showed an example of what would happen if we laid the goo out to dry. It becomes a solid, not resembling its original air-filled form at all. This is when the environmental lesson comes into play. The demo shows that no matter what we do Styrofoam we cannot get rid of it. The best we can do is to take the air out to at least ensure that it takes up the least amount of space in our landfills as possible. The final part of the activity is one that I think would make a fantastic lab activity. We filled a small (5 oz.) beaker halfway with Acetone. Then, we allowed all of the students to drop packing peanuts into the beaker one-by-one to see how many could fit into the tiny beaker. Without the Acetone, only 3 or 4 puffed up peanuts could fit. But with the Acetone working to remove the air from the Styrofoam 60+ peanuts condensed into the gooey substance and fit into the tiny beaker. Here is a link to a youtube video that shows Styrofoam being "dissolved" into Acetone. For those of you haven't seen it before, it will give a basic sense of what happens. I loved this activity so much that I just thought I would share it. I can just see all the ways this can me made into a lesson plan, demonstration, or lab activity for students of all ages. Enjoy!

Betty Paulsell Betty Paulsell 48560 Points

Katarina, Thank you for sharing this experience and describing the experiment in such excellent detail. This is definitely a great demonstration for environmental studies!! I will pass this idea onto some teachers whom I know that will appreciate it.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Hi Katarina, Thanks for sharing this fantastic lesson idea! Arlene, thanks for sharing your resources! Recently, I've been looking at ways to transform some of my demo lessons into hands-on inquiry lessons. I'm wondering if there is a way to modify this demonstration to make it inquiry-based? Maureen

Susanne Hokkanen Susanne Hokkanen 79520 Points

This is great information and great suggestions. I wonder if we could complete a conservation of mass experiment with the dissolving styrafoam? Could we capture the release air, and if so how? Or should we focus on what mass is remaining to determine the quantity of air released. This is a great topic. I am anxious to try this first with my science club, and then with my students. Any other ideas, suggestion?

Katarina Lincalis Katarina Lincalis 2340 Points

Thanks everyone for your feedback and input. I was thinking of other, more inquiry-based ways to explore the properties of styrofoam and acetone. The demonstration could be done at the end of a unit on polymers, environmental science, or even chemistry. Here is the idea I was thinking: how about a long-term, class-directed experiment that explores the differences between recyclable materials and styrofoam. The class could test how various materials (paper, paper towels, cardboard, styrofoam, etc.) respond to being soaked in various liquids (water, soda, acetone, etc.). Students could make daily observations to see how the materials are reacting to the liquids over a period of a week of so. They could record observations individually or as a class. The goal of this experiment would be to show that the recyclable, non-polymer based materials breakdown easily while styrofoam does not. The only liquid that the styrofoam would react to would be the Acetone. Once this is observed, the aforementioned demonstration could be performed and the teacher could explain the reasons behind the reaction as well as guide students in making connections about how this discovery explains why styrofoam is so bad for the environment. This is just an idea, and I haven't tested it out yet. If anyone likes it and decides to test it out, please let me know what modifications you make and how it goes!

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Hi Katarina, I really like your idea of comparing biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials in your experiment. It is a perfect tie into an environmental impact lesson/unit. Right now, I'm working with a group of Boy Scouts on their Environmental Science merit badge. I'm going use this activity by introducing the materials to the kids and then having them develop a process to break down the materials down. The experiment might involve some guided inquiry since they probably will not consider acetone. I'll be doing this activity with them next Tuesday night, so I will let you know how everything goes. Thanks for the great idea! Maureen

Katarina Lincalis Katarina Lincalis 2340 Points

Thanks Maureen! I can't wait to see hear how it goes and see how the troop likes it!

Sandy Gady Sandy Gady 43175 Points

What a wonderful lesson. This is definitely one that students will remember for a very long time. I know for me, I will never forget the day Mr.Linehan, my beloved 4th Grade teacher dropped a thermometer and mercury went everywhere, little balls bouncing merrily along. The first thing that comes to mind is to remember the safety precautions we need to take to keep kids safe. I find my students love wearing goggles, especially if they are the bright neon ones. Nothing spoils a good lab more than to have an accident. If I know students, they are going to want to test a variety of liquids, especially soda pop. It would also be interesting to test how long it takes the biodegradeable peanuts to break down compared to those put in acetone.

Kellee Kelly Kellee Kelly 7800 Points

Love the idea! So I'm trying to think about the impact of the styrofoam on the environment if it doesn't decompose. Because, the plastic had to be extracted from fossil fuel (right?) and so it would still be on this earth but just in a different form. So if it does not decompose, is that the issue? (Maybe a dumb question) I'm assuming that what makes it dangerous is the bi-products of producing the styrofoam on things like nonrenewable resources and global warming? Anyways all great inquires! I think for my grade level I may begin inquiry on the cost of producing 1 cow for example, found this at: The Environment Conservation of Fossil fuel. It takes 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of beef protein; 35 calories for 1 calorie of pork; 22 calories for 1 of poultry; but just 1 calorie of fossil fuel for 1 calorie of soybeans. By eating plant foods instead of animal foods, I help conserve our non-renewable sources of energy. Water Conservation. It takes 3 to 15 times as much water to produce animal protein as it does plant protein. As a vegetarian I contribute to water conservation. Efficient use of grains. It takes up to 16 pounds of soybeans and grains to produce 1 lb. of beef and 3 to 6 lbs. to produce 1 lb of turkey & egg. By eating grain foods directly, I make the food supply more efficient & that contributes to the environment. Soil conservation. When grains & legumes are used more efficiently, our precious topsoil is automatically made more efficient in its use. We use less agricultural resources to provide for the same number of people. Saving our forests. Tropical forests in Brazil and other tropic regions are destroyed daily, in part, to create more acreage to raise livestock. By not supporting the meat industry, I directly reduce the demand to pillage these irreplaceable treasures of nature. Since the forest land "filters" our air supply and contains botanical sources for new medicines, this destruction is irreversable. OK so I probably won't push the kids to go vegetarian but...will discuss whether its worth it to produce or make certain items.

Maureen Stover Maureen Stover 41070 Points

Hi Kellee, I think your approach is a great idea! As some who tries to conserve, recycle, and consider the environmental impact of my actions, I had no clue of the stats you posted...thank you for sharing them! I'm curious about the calories of fossil fuel to produce animal protein. Does that stat come from the transportation of meat? Thanks! Maureen

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