Chemistry At Work in Stoke-on-Trent

In mid-December I was fortunate enough to head to the Potteries Museum in Hanley (Stoke-On-Trent, UK) for a Chemistry at Work day organised as a collaboration between the museum and council folks, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. I was down to do an activity and spent ages wracking my brain for something winter suitable but not specifically Christmas. It’s a bit of a challenge coming up with something suitably hands-on that lasts 20 minutes, can be packed into a backpack and is suitable for deployment in a museum environment. In the end I went for super-absorbent polymers, linking it into the season with the idea of fake snow.

Chemistry experiments in a backpack are something I’ve been working on since winning my zone in ‘I’m a Scientist’ back in March (my arms have just about recovered from the typing during the live chats). As I don’t drive, the idea of something that can easily (and safely) carted on public transport is key. i went shopping on Amazon mainly and came back with plastic testtubes with lids which seem mainly to be sold for geeky testtube shooters for bars, and water dropper bottles suitable for dispensing animal medicine. These items were considerably cheaper from vet and drink suppliers than through any chemical suppliers I looked at. I also acquired a tub of fake snow powder from Steve Spangler Science. I added a tup of Plant Water Crystals from the local garden centre and a bit of poly(acrylic acid) that’s been lurking in my chemical store for a year.


Supervising the would-be polymer chemists. Thanks to Heidi Dobbs for the photo

And so the challenge was set – which of the three polymers would make the best fake snow? How many drops of water could each hold? What other uses could the students think of for super-absorbant polymers? And would they think it gross that the polymers were often used in nappies.

Well unsurprisingly the fake snow powder made the best fake snow, the plant water crystals were ‘fake ice’ generally, forming a more translucent gel. The lab grade poly(acrylic acid) was a little fickle, being difficult to mix with the water due to rapid gel formation that prevented water getting into the heart of it. Anything pitched as friendly competition to small groups of 13 -15 year olds works well, and getting to ‘do stuff’ is far better than being talked at.

Now the next challenge is to figure out a summer-proof activity!