Atoms, molecules, matter — oh my!
It’s the stuff that all of us are made up of and surrounded by, but most of us fail to comprehend. We are probably even intimidated by its seemingly never-ending complexity.
For Wayne Gorry’s fifth-grade class at Julia Randall Elementary School, chemistry is not so tough, especially when it’s broken down, like matter into atoms, by a simple experiment using food coloring.
On a sunny Monday morning, students watched in awe as an ink dot separated into three colors on a strip of chromatography paper using only distilled water. The experiment illustrated on a small scale what scientists do every day in the lab — understand why things happen the way they do. By using a set of variables and a hypothesis, they can try to predict what will happen next.
In this experiment, students got their first stab at thinking like a scientist.
Before students arrived, Gorry placed an ink dot on paper strips made up of three colors of food coloring. The students’ job was to predict what would happen when they placed the chromatography paper into water.
Students hypothesized that since water is sticky, water would initially stick to the paper, rise up, hit the ink dot, stick to it and separate the ink into its three colors or molecules as it continued up the paper.
When students dipped the papers in, that is exactly what happened.
Now for those of us not so scientifically inclined, a brief run down of basic chemistry explained by Gorry:
All matter (the stuff that things are made of) is made up of atoms.
An atom is a tiny piece of matter too small small to see.
A molecule is a group of atoms (more than two) joined together in a specific way.
Because molecules don’t stretch or change color, the reason the colors separated and traveled different lengths up the paper is based on their weight. Red, which is lighter, traveled the shortest distance up the paper, while blue traveled the highest, meaning it was the heaviest.
What good is this knowledge in real life?
One student pointed out that if you had a glass of lemonade and were a diabetic, you would want to know what was in the lemonade, specifically sugar.
If you isolate the drink’s ingredients, you learn if it is safe to drink.
Beyond beverages, scientists can explain that everything is made up of matter and atoms. Knowing its properties, decisions can be made accordingly.
Gorry pointed out that most people don’t make decisions based on scientific reasoning.
“It is reflected in the whole society,” he said. “People don’t value it like they should. We don’t base decisions on science but on how we feel. This is reflected in diet and exercise and environmental issues.”
For example, Gorry said some people don’t believe in global warming. But he pointed out it isn’t like religion, it is based on science.
“I am excited about teaching science because it has been neglected for so long,” he said. “Over and over again I hear from middle school and high school teachers who complain because they are teaching what should have already been taught.”
Because of this, Gorry makes it a point to teach the sciences in his classroom, something many teachers put on the back burner to focus on other subjects. Subjects like math, reading and writing, which are tested on in standardized tests.
“Science had been squeezed out of the curriculum.”
Last year, science was added as a subject to tests, so more teachers are incorporating it into their lessons, he said.
However, with a lack of science supplies, Gorry relies on outside sources for books and materials.
From UC Berkeley, Gorry receives science projects, like the models of matter unit taught Monday, free in exchange for his feedback.
“We did not have science materials before, so we could not teach it,” he said. “Now everyone has more science materials.”
Recently, Gorry received a grant from Gila County for a high-tech telescope. With it, he plans to teach an eight-week planets and moons lesson.