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Kitchen chemistry: Just add water and light a science spark

FARGO, N.D. — Start with water. Add a healthy splash of cooking oil, and just a few drops of food coloring.

It might sound like a bad recipe, but in the hands of Graeme Wyllie — and the addition of half a tablet of Alka-Seltzer — the four ingredients combine into an impressive, if only temporary, homemade lava lamp.

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Wyllie, an assistant professor of chemistry at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and coordinator of Concordia Science Academy, still remembers the “pivotal moment” that got him hooked on the field when he synthesized aspirin in a high school class by boiling willow bark and reacting it with acetic anhydride.

Now, he’s working to give kids that same moment — and inspire their curiosity and passion for science — but the experiments he’s teaching youngsters through demonstrations at the Fargo Public Library and his work with the Concordia Science Academy won’t require any strange ingredients or dangerous chemicals.

Wyllie recommends parents help their kids try “kitchen chemistry,” real experiments that can be done with common things found around the home or at hardware or grocery stores.

“Sometimes, there’s some really spectacular science hiding behind what appears to be just simple, mundane materials,” he said.

Carrie Leopold, too, likes to help young people discover their inner scientist — even if they don’t realize they’re learning powerful concepts through the fun experiments at the Inspire Innovation Lab in the Moorhead Center Mall.

“My advice for parents would be to let the kids explore,” she said. “It’s OK if you don’t know the answers; it’s OK to learn with your children.”

Here are some ideas from Wyllie and Leopold for at-home experiments that are simple and fun for kids to do at home, with parental supervision.

Working with water

Try to explain the concepts of “hydrophobic” and “hydrophilic” interactions, and you just might find a bored, confused kid staring back. But use some Insta-Snow and Magic Sand to demonstrate the properties, Leopold said, to make the lesson entertaining.

Insta-Snow, available at craft stores and online, is a hydrophilic polymer, meaning it is highly absorbent — it’s the same absorbent material found in baby diapers.

When water is added to the white powder, it greatly expands to look like snow; pour salt into that mixture, and it will revert back.

Magic Sand, meanwhile, also is a polymer. However, she said it’s hydrophobic, meaning it will repel water — and any drops of water added to a small amount of the sand will instantly roll off or pool up.

Leopold said it’s easy to tailor lessons to a child’s interests and grade level by asking questions — why does it react this way? What happens if they add more or less? — for a real-world learning experience.

Beautiful blossoms

One of Wyllie’s favorite projects to teach is a “Chromatography Blossom” — a fancy name for something made with water-soluble markers, paper coffee filters and water.

First, draw small dots around the middle of a filter with several colors. Tear a small hole in the center, then roll up another filter and insert into the center, and place the creation over a cup of water.

The rolled-up filter sticking down into the water absorbs the liquid, slowly drawing it up into the other filter — causing the marker dots to spread around, creating an interesting flower-like pattern after just a few minutes.

Oh, Oobleck

Named after a Dr. Seuss book, the strange substance known as oobleck is a hit with kids.

Wyllie suggests combining two cups of corn starch and one cup of water; if it’s too thick, add more water, or add more corn starch if it’s too runny.

The combination creates what’s known as a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning it’s both a solid and a liquid. It will spread out to take the shape of whatever container it’s in, behaving like a liquid, but if it’s balled up in a fist, it will keep its shape like a solid — until the pressure is released, and it runs off hands like water.