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Engaging First Day of School Chemistry Activities or Labs

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Rachel Hill Rachel Zeigler 2415 Points

I am a preservice chemistry teacher currently in student teaching. I was wondering if anyone wanted to share any activities or labs that they use during the first few days of school to really grab the students attention and make them wonder about all of the amazing chemistry they will learn in the upcoming year! Thanks!

Jacki Kyle Jacki Kyle 10 Points

Flinn chem fax The red plague is a great activity involves contamination and safety.

Emily Faulconer Emily Faulconer 5245 Points

Folks have shared some fun ideas for the first day! I wanted to share a Point of View written in 2013 that discusses the importance of making an impression on the first day. 


Cristina Welch Cristina Welch 400 Points

  • teacher demos - acid on an old sock, acid on an eyeball (local butcher shop), contrast the difference between a bobby pin in a flame and a strip of magnesium in a flame (dont set the smoke detectors off!)
  • student labs - rainbow solution density mystery (yes, it's middle school like, but it works for the first day of school to get high schoolers thinking), kinetics temperature lab with alka-seltzer tablets (simple, hypothesis, data collection in tables and graphs, conclusion, etc)


Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 86993 Points

Hi Rachel,
There is a discussion thread titled, "Chemistry Animations, Games,and Simulations" that might have some ideas for you. I personally like to use discrepant events to engage the students right away. There are several chemistry ones to choose from depending on what unit you will be studying first. Steve Spangler's website shares several.

Rebecca Falin Rebecca Falin 71530 Points

I made turmeric paper at the end of summer (mix about 1 T ground turmeric in about 1-2 cups of rubbing alcohol, pour into shallow dish and dip paper in it, then hang up to dry). This is what the old goldenrod paper was made of, but it doesn't appear to be made anymore. Its an acid-base indicator. Spray with a basic solution (ammonia) and it turns bright red color temporarily. Paint on a baking soda mix and it the red is permanent. I created a banner by taping several sheets together and wrote "Welcome to Chemistry" with paraffin wax, then sprayed with ammonia solution to reveal the message. I then had the students create name tags with the paper so I could learn their names and they could do some chemistry. I also did the "Opening Day Signs For Chemistry" from a Flinn ChemFax. This one reveals three different faces: CheMisery, CheMystery, and Chemistry. You can find that one on the Flinn's elearning video series for opening day activities. You can find those here: http://elearning.flinnsci.com/ I also had them do a traditional "separation of a mixture" lab at the end of the first week. This was just a mixture of sand, salt, seeds (I used pumpkin) and iron fillings. They had to devise a procedure for separating the mixture into four pure substances. I put out a bunch of miscellaneous equipment for them to use (beakers, stir rods, spatulas, magnets, filter paper, funnels, etc). This engaged them in inquiry right away and introduced the science notebooks where I had them create a flow chart of their procedure. The kids enjoyed it ...

Kathleen Willson Kathleen Willson 10 Points

Great ideas! Thanks so much.

Sharla Dowding Sharla Dowding, NBCT 1135 Points

I purchased this paper on Amazon (in 2012) and it worked like the goldenrod paper did. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00125FBC4/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1 -Sharla

Marcos Aurélio Silva Marcos Aurélio 2907 Points

Ótima atividade

Adah Stock Adah Stock 101510 Points

Hi All: I use to start the year off with a bang. I uses smoke bombs and simple firecrackers (outdoors of course.) We used sparklers as well. I informed my students that this was indeed chemistry but that we were going to enjoy the rest of the year as well. Most of my students expected chemistry of explosives. Another way to engage them is to use Discrepant Events to start the year. They are fun and confounding for students. Here is an article about it: http://bcramond.myweb.uga.edu/home/DiscrepantEvents.htm Here are some examples of them: http://www.learner.org/workshops/chemistry/workshop4/4_4.html There are several books with discrepant events: http://www.teachersource.com/product/invitations-to-science-inquiry-by-tik-liem/books-music-software and the NSTA bookstore has others: http://books.google.com/books/about/Brain_powered_Science.html?id=oWhy72Kghy8C Hope this helps. Adah

Anna Ward Anna Ward 1010 Points

Hi Adah! My name is Anna, I am a student at a university working on getting my teaching certfication. I was just wondering reading your post was it hard to get permission to use these items with your students? It sounds like it would be alot of fun!

Cristina Welch Cristina Welch 400 Points

  • always put safety first and stick to a smaller demo
  • go over what could go wrong/hazards with students in advance (have them write it down)
  • have an appropriate extinguisher ready
  • consider the following statement: "Sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."  While I definitely support this statement, I think that this mentallity should be minimized when with dealing with students in an enclosed setting.


Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63540 Points

Anna, To use fireworks and smoke bombs, you would need to make sure you informed your administrator so that he or she knew what you were going to be doing. Most administrators will allow you to use a variety of teaching techniques as long as they follow standards of best practice and you can tie your activity to a learning objective. You would also need to check with your local ordinances. Many areas of the country have laws limiting the use of fireworks (meaning they can only be used at certain times during the year). You would also not want to use fireworks if your area was under a burn ban. The links to the discrepant events that Adah listed would be very easy to use with a class. They use easily obtained supplies and would fit well in a number of classroom settings.

Adah Stock Adah Stock 101510 Points

Anna: In answer to your question, I did everything in small scale. With this said I didn't ask permission but felt I was not endangering my students because our room was next to the building exit. However, one time I did alert my principal and vp of the use of smoke to show convection in my middle school class, we actually had a student try to set the auditorium curtains on fire and they thought it was smoke generated by my demo. That could have been a very dangerous situation since they assumed the smoke they were smelling was due to my demo and they took a few minutes to check it out before pulling the fire alarm. Adah

Maureen Driscoll Maureen Driscoll 210 Points

I start off the year with Fire Writing Demo. Make a saturated solution of KNO3 (potassium nitrate) - about 100 mL will serve you for several years. Using a Q-tip or small paint brush, I write a message (like Chem Rocks) on a 3-ft long strip of paper towel. Make sure all the letters connect somehow when writing it. (Think Cursive) It will dry and be invisible. Then I tape it to a wall (fortunately, I have a brick wall in my classroom.) Holding a match to a starting point, the portion impregnated with potassium nitrate will burn and the rest should be un-burned.

Abby Nunez Abby Nunez 890 Points

I like these suggestions!

Nate Cline Nate Cline 80 Points

These are all great ideas!  I have one I'd like to add; it is not chemistry specific but good for any course that helps student develop problem solving skills.  Typically on the first or second day of the semester the students enter the classroom to find that ice has been set out and melting.  I use a ring stand, iron ring, and a funnel with ice dripping into a beaker.  I typically allow the ice to melt at least an hour before students arrive so that enough has melted into water in the beaker.  Their task is to work in pairs or small groups and devise a plan to determine when the ice started to melt (or was taken out of the freezer).  They are allowed to use any materials I have available in the lab/classroom and they must carry out their plan.  They are also expected to write their procedure and collect data, show calculations, etc. that is needed to determine the time.  This is a great way for you to get to know your students early on in the semester and also for them to get to know each other to solve problems together.  It is also great because it is inexpensive, allows students to be creative, and since no background content knowledge is needed it can easily be done on the first day of class.

Cristina Welch Cristina Welch 400 Points

Nice!  I like this idea.  This is my 5th year teaching.  I might use this next semester.


Renee McHatton Renee McHatton 10 Points

What supplies did you have out for them to use?

What are the "usual" solutions that they come up with?

Judy Avellaneda Judy Avellaneda 1245 Points

Hi Adah! you suggested some great resources! I too found these helpful as a preservice teacher. Thank you!

Michelle Ruane Michelle Ruane 745 Points

This is a fabulous resource and goes into the chemistry behind the demonstrations. http://ocw.mit.edu/high-school/chemistry/demonstrations/videos/

Brien Sparling Brien Sparling 20 Points

I used to be on the lookout for thrilling first day demonstrations, which I loved doing.  I gradually found out that high school students who signed up for high school chemistry came into class interested...but scared to death of passing the class. Now days I spend the first three sessions giving them some structures and initial successes and let them settle in before I give them a "Wow" lab.

My first lab is really simple, the reaction of Iron nails with Copper Sulfate solution in a petri dish, but it allows them to practice safety rules in the context of an actual chemistry lab while doing a colorful lab. Every year I gather from student comments that they find the lab very interesting even though I think its pretty basic.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63540 Points

I agree with you about allowing students to do a lab or two before you wow them with your chemical prowess. You are so right that many students are concerned with passing the course. As neat as a demonstration is, early in the course can be very intimidating to many students.

The first lab I do with my chemistry students is a modification of the Flinn Scientific Acid in the Eye demonstration.  Students add two drops of concentrated acid to a raw egg in a disposable petri dish. I typically use hydrochloric acid. They make observations of the changes to the egg over the class period and then leave them overnight to see what happens.  

This lab is very simple as well.  However, it drives home the importance of wearing safety goggles and other safety attire in the lab.  We also have a great discussion about the use of models in the classroom.  We spend another class period comparing our egg model to the human eye in terms of chemical composition and surface area affected by the acid.  After that lab, I never have students argue about wearing safety equipment. 

The first demonstration I do for the class happens several days later when explaining the importance of disposable of chemicals properly.  I explain that students should always show care when dumping clear chemicals down the sink or into glassware just left in the sink from a previous period. Then I proceed to do the Elephant Toothpaste demonstration, but I don't tell them what it is.  I just use it to prove my point which is dispose of your chemicals in the method your teacher instructs you to do. 

Eric Lindley Eric Lindley 400 Points

Hello there! I just worked with my co-teacher to do an awesome lab to start out the year. It's a three bottle problem where the students work in pairs to determine which of their solutions matches those of their labmate by mixing them in plastic well plates. For example, A = 2, B = 3, C = 1, where one student has A - C and the other has 1 -3. They should both mix their solutions together (A+B, B+C, A+C, 1+2, 2+3, 1+3) to then match them effectively. The solutions to use are alum, sodium bicarbonate, and vinegar. One combination yields no reaction, one yields bubbles, and one yields a white precipitate. The chemicals are inexpensive and safe for a first-day lab. I hope this helps!

Debbie Morgan Debbie Morgan 934 Points

What a great idea Eric! So simple with easy and safe chemicals. Thanks for sharing! 

Dee Dee Lambert Dee Dee Lambert 10 Points

Would love to know the title of this lab or where it can be found or purchased. I just began teaching at a private school teaching all HS sciences and have limited materials. Need to find labs that work with common inexpensive materials. 

Marcos Aurélio Silva Marcos Aurélio 2907 Points

  • Ótima idéia

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