Easy, fun experiments to spark kids' interest in science
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
Every summer parents look for ways to keep kids engaged with education before returning to school in the fall. Today, I'm talking with a researcher at Upstate who has some ideas for some safe, easy and enjoyable scientific experiments kids can do at home. Deanna Clemmer is a graduate student in the Upstate laboratory of Dr. Harry E. Taylor, who's a microbiologist/immunologist.
Welcome to "The Informed Patient," Mrs. Clemmer.
Deanna Clemmer: Hi, thank you for having me.
Host Amber Smith: Now, before we talk about the experiments you're going to share, let me ask you, when did you know you wanted a career in science?
Deanna Clemmer: It actually really started when I was about a kid, and they used to have science fairs everywhere, and I was always a really big fan of bottle rockets or the volcanic things with baking soda. As I got older, I just really held onto that childish love for all of those things.
And when I realized I could make a career out of it, I was just like: That's it. So it started when I was really young.
So it's important to get kids when they're young, if, they're going to get hooked on science. Oh, absolutely. It's very important to nourish that love for it because science is hard, just like anything else is, and it's about grit and perseverance to push a child through.
Host Amber Smith: Do you have any advice for parents for how they might recognize if they've got a child who would excel in science?
Deanna Clemmer: Yeah. So I would say if you see that your kid gets a little bit excited aboutdinosaurs, about the little volcanic things that they see at the science fairs and all that, try to get them into maybe something in your community.
I know a lot of communities have outreach for little science camps and such as that. You might want to buy them, they have these great little science cookbooks, or like little, very easy-to-understand science books that people can get for a couple bucks off of Amazon that really helps push kids forward. And I love those. I buy those from my nephews all the time. It really, really gets them excited, very easy and fun stuff to do that really hypes kids up when it comes to that.
Host Amber Smith: Well, now, you have two experiments you're going to share with us today. Tell me which one you'd like to start with.
Deanna Clemmer: I'm going to start with the one that everybody loves the most, because kids love candy, everybody loves candy, and it's basically how to make rock candy at home.
Essentially what you would need: very simple things. And usually you could find these in your local grocery stores, especially around summer, when they start pulling out all the marshmallows and skewers and all the stuff for barbecues.
So typically you're going to need 2 to 3 cups of sugar. You're going to need about a cup or so of water. You need the skewers, like the pretty short ones that you use for maybe a small s'more, not the really long ones that you use forbarbecues. You're going to need a jar or a glass, something that's see-through, because the coolest part about this thing is that you can watch the rock candy grow throughout the week. And kids love that.
Clothespins, very easy to find. You can get those at some kind of home goods shop. additionally, some people like to add extra food color to have like a rainbow and then, candy flavoring because, you might as well make it as sugary as possible.
Host Amber Smith: Let me ask you: the skewer, is that, like wood, is it made of wood, or does it matter what it's made of?
Deanna Clemmer: It really doesn't matter. I mean, a lot of people like to use the wooden ones because they're easier to find, and if a kid like breaks it, it's fine. You have like a hundred more in the pack. So a lot of people like to use those just because they're easier to find around the summertime other than the metal ones that other people like to use for barbecuing.
Host Amber Smith: And how big of a jar do you think would be good to use?
Deanna Clemmer: I typically use one of those really cute, like Mason, jars, right? I think those are about somewhere between 12 and 16 ounces, so they're not the ginormous ones, but if you want to get a huge one, you can. The size of the Mason jar isn't exactly important. You just want to make sure that you have a good enough jar to fill it with liquid.
Host Amber Smith: All right. So once you assemble all of your things, is this an experiment that a kid needs an adult's help with or not?
Deanna Clemmer: Yes. I would say the only reason why you would need an adult is because the first step is that you have to combine the equal parts of sugar and water in a saucepan and heat it up. You can't do it really in a microwave. You want to do it in a saucepan. So that is the biggest part that the adult needs to be there for.
Host Amber Smith: OK. What do you do from there?
Deanna Clemmer: Once you have combined the equal parts of the sugar and water into the saucepan, you want to heat it until all the sugar is dissolved. And the good thing about that iswhen you're slowly adding sugar, and you're trying to heat it up and dissolve it, it'll turn into a cloudy color. And that's how you know that all the sugar had dissolved and none of it's going to float to the bottom. So there's that step, and, like I said, it's going to look a little cloudy, and that's exactly what you want. And basically, you're making a saturated sugar solution, which is really good.
Most of the time, this is about the part where you add all the candy flavoring that you want. Most of the time, people like to add, raspberry and strawberry and blueberry and all of this. After you have that heated up, you want to remove the sugar water from the heat and allow it to cool down.
From there, you're going to start preparing your candy sticks. So depending on how long the skewers are, you might have to cut them. Because like I said, sometimes you get those really, really, like foot-long ones that aren't necessary. You maybe need like a 6-inch skewer. It really depends on how much sugar you're going to put on it.
So you want to cut the skewers to the desirable size, that's for the jars that you have, and then you're going to want to dip the sticks in water and then roll them in additional sugar, not the sugar from the saucepan, but sugar that you might put on a plastic plate or something, just roll them in sugar.
So from there, you're going to set those aside, and you're going to let them dry. They have to be dry before you're going to put them back in the jars. So once you're doing that, while you're letting those dry, you can start to prepare your jars.
And my favorite part about this is that me and my nephews like to make several jars. So each jar will have their own color. They like blue and red and orange. I like to do the crazy colors, like purple and navy blue and all that. So once your sugar water is cool enough, you want to pour into the jars. And like I said, you can use each jar for like (different) colors. And it's just really cool throughout the week to see that.
And so once the sticks are dry, you want to carefully place them in the jar. This is where the clothespin comes into place. You don't want the skewer to be touching the bottom of the jar. You want it to just be like hanging in the middle. And that's what the clothespin is for. You're going to use the clothespin to anchor it to the jar, but you don't want it touching the sides, you don't want it touching the bottom, and this will allow the candy to quote-unquote grow while it's in the jar.
Kids love that. And you want to make sure that the sticks are completely dry before you put them in the jar. That is really important. If it's wet, it's not going to grow as well. It might not grow at all.
Because the rock candy needs the sugar on the sticks to grow, if it's not dry, it's going to dissolve in the water. It's also, like I said, very important to make sure they're not touching the size of the jar, because it won't grow that way. That's just how that works.
Host Amber Smith: Let me ask you: How much water do you put, like how high up should the water come in the jar?
Deanna Clemmer: When you're using the Mason jars and it has like the screw top, a little bit less than the lip of that. You want to make sure that there's space for the candy to grow. And if the candy grows a lot, like if you leave it past a week, it will start to make the water rise, so you want to make sure the water is a little bit below, the lip of the screw. So if you're using a cup, you want to make sure it's not at the very brim of the cup. You want to give it a couple inches so that the rock candy can grow.
So after you do all that, you literally just leave it in the jar and throughout the week, you can watch the candy grow. It takes about a week. Some kids get a little antsy and by day three, they're like, "Oh, there's enough candy on this. I'm just going to eat it."
But I found that once you leave it for a week, you get that whole skewer that's in the jar, it's full of candy. It grows in every single direction.
My nephews and I like to take pictures throughout the week, day one, day two, day three, and kids love that. They love to see their experiment working throughout time, and I think that's very important for kids to be seeing or to show them that when you're patient and you wait for things, amazing things can happen throughout the week.
So at the end of the week, that thing looks like you bought it from the store. It is awesome. It's in several different colors. Every kid can enjoy, whatever color that they chose to grow. And that, I think, people can do throughout the summer. sometimes I actually like to, once the candy is skewered all the way, I like to put them in the freezer, so it's kind of cool once they come from being outside, it's kind of like a Popsicle, but also rock candy at the same time. And I found that, a lot of my cousins and all of that really just absolutely loved that. It's very easy to do, easy cleanup. If you're lucky, nobody spills a jar. Usually the food coloring or the candy flavoring doesn't stain, super easy to clean up with paper towels, and it's just really fun for kids to do.
Host Amber Smith: Well, let's talk about the principles of science that this experiment illustrates, because you start out by dissolving sugar in water, right? Is that a concept that you want children to understand?
Deanna Clemmer: Oh, of course. I think the concept of things dissolving in water is actually pretty fascinating and something that I've used throughout my entire scientific career.
So I think just understanding the states of matter, you know, air, gas, dissolving into things is super simple, but it's one of those things that it's so much better when you can actually see it. So, very simple concept, but I think it's fun for kids, once they see like, "Oh, my God, Mom, you poured sugar in here, and all of a sudden there's a cloud of stuff. Why did that happen?"
And just being able to explain to your kids that it's just changing a state of matter, and they will carry that. I mean, when my mom used to teach me that when making tea when I was a kid, I still remember that. it's one of those things that kind of stick with the child as they get older.
Host Amber Smith: Do you have to stir the, sugar to make it dissolve, or do you just throw it in there? I'm wondering because it's going to be over heat, would it burn if it's not stirred?
Deanna Clemmer: So it's not going to burn if it's not stirred. I know that kids love stirring things, like over-stirring them in saucepans, so you don't have to stir it as often, but if you want the child to be really involved in it, they can stir until their arms fall off. The sugar just needs to dissolve and be cloudy. It's not going to burn if it's not being stirred constantly, but it's also not going to affect it if it is being stirred constantly.
So if you want the child to bereally involved in the saucepan part, you can just watch them stir that while you're preparing the skewers, and it'll keep them pretty occupied.
Host Amber Smith: Well, give us a scientific explanation for how it is that that stick with the sugar on it becomes this amazing candy.
Deanna Clemmer: What's cool about it is, we know that it is sugar water; that's what we dissolved in the saucepan, right? Now that you've put the dry sugar in sugar water, it's like all of the sugar from the saucepan, from the sugar water, is going to connect to the skewer.
And it's more of, like, you went somewhere, and all of your friends were suddenly there. Like if you went to the park, and all of a sudden, all of your friends were there, and all of your friends come to you, it's essentially that, but with sugar particles. And I think it's just such a simple yet cool thing to understand, basically simple levels of attraction in just normal stuff that we use to cook and eat.
Deanna Clemmer: Essentially, it's the dried-up sugar will basically draw all of the other sugar particles that are inside of the water, that you dissolved, to the skewer. And that's why it's important that the sugar on the skewer is dry, because if it's wet, then it's just going to dissolve. Everything is just going to go to the bottom of the jar.
But if it has something to draw it to, almost like a magnet, like a sugar magnet, it's going to draw all of that sugar to the skewer.
Host Amber Smith: This is your host, Amber Smith. I'm talking with Deanna Clemmer. She's a graduate student working in the microbiology/immunology lab of Dr. Harry E. Taylor at Upstate.
Earlier, she walked us through how to make rock candy at home, and now she's going to share another experiment.
Deanna Clemmer: All right. So the second and my absolute favorite is, we all know the classic experiment of taking Coca-Cola and throwing some Mentos (a brand of mint candy) in there and causing a huge explosion. We all know that. When I was younger, my mom added a little twist to it just to make us understand how the explosion was happening.
So at home, if you take a simple glass cup, some people like using bigger things, like I've seen people use fishbowls, you pour about, I don't know, a third of the glass or whatever material that you're using. You want to make sure that it's a see-through glass. You're pouring about a third of Coca-Cola in there, and then you fill a solid layer of it with oil: cooking oil, regular oil, doesn't have to be extra virgin oil or anything, just something that you would use to cook with. And then once you do that, you add the Mentos to it. And as we all would expect, there's an explosion, but essentially this explosion is in slow motion. So you can actually see the gas moving through the oil, almost like a lava lamp.
And kids love that, just to see, because we all know what happens when you just add to Coca-Cola and the Mentos, but now to see the explosion happening in real time, but also kind of slow, so you can see every particle of gas going through the oil, is one of the coolest, simplest things I've ever done at home.
And every single kid that I've showed that absolutely just wants to throw as many Mentos as possible into the Coca-Cola, just to see how big of a, essentially like a Coca-Cola/Mentos explosion, volcanic lava lamp that they can make. Very simple to do. Kind of sucks to waste your oil like that, but it's totally worth it to see the look on the kids' faces.
They see just a slow-motion explosion.
Host Amber Smith: I've never done this Coke/Mentos thing. So if you can back up and tell me about that. It has to be Coca-Cola, or can it be Pepsi or root beer?
Deanna Clemmer: It could be any soda. A lot of people like to use the dark soda because it has more of a visual explosion.
Basically what happens is all the carbonation, all the things that are involved in soda. That's why we know, like, if you shake it too much or you drop it, it's going to explode anyways. There is something in Mentos that makes this reaction hyper. And once you add the Mentos to the Coca-Cola, it creates a volcanic explosion.
If you've never done it, Amber, I suggest you go home and do it. It's really fun. Do it outside, so you don't make a mess.The great part about this particular one when you're adding the oil to this is that there's no mess. It stops the explosion from going over into your counter and creating a battle zone in your kitchen.
But essentially, when you add Mentos to regular soda, the carbonation reacts with the Mentos, causing it to be more volcanic and actually shooting out of the bottle. And it's so fun. It's usually a game that you would take like a brand-new thing of Coke, and you would drop as many Mentos in it as possible.
And then you would run, so you don't get hit by the volcanic explosion.
Host Amber Smith: So do the Coke one outdoors so that it doesn't destroy my kitchen, but the oil one is OK to do indoors?
Deanna Clemmer: Oh, absolutely. The reaction will last somewhere between two to five minutes. So you could take plenty of pictures, videos. It's important that when you're doing it, when you have it in your glass jar, your bowl, whatever it is that you're doing it in, that you don't allow the child to dip their hands into the oil, because once you do that, it's going to mess up the reaction of it, and it will no longer happen. But I find that a game that I like to play with my nephews a lot is seeing how many Mentos we can put in it, just to see how big we can get the, I call it a controlled volcano. And once you do it, it legit looks like a lava lamp.
And I know a lot of people don't really know what lava lamps are anymore, but it looks like a lava lamp in a glass, and it's just absolutely fascinating. It should take you no more than two minutes to set this up. You just need to find a clear bowl, jar, glass to do it in. And it's just to see the look on the child's face.
And it's fun for you because we all know the classic thing about putting Mentos into the Coke, but now you add an extra layer. And that is just awesome. I love doing that with kids over the summer.
Host Amber Smith: So what happens to the Mento, though? Is there any piece of it left after it does what it does in the oil?
Deanna Clemmer: It absolutely dissolves. It kind of almost looks like a rocket going through the oil, but then it would just kind of disappear, and that's because of its reaction that it had with the soda. The cool thing about it is this particular experiment teaches kids about how things will layer, and things will layer throughout all of nature, right?
So it's like how we know water and oil don't mix. It's a similar thing with the oil and the soda. So the oil will not even go through the soda. It'll create an actual layer on top of it. And through that layer is why we're able to see the entire reaction happen, but in slow motion.
Host Amber Smith: Does it mess things up if you tried to put food coloring in the oil?
Deanna Clemmer: I've actually never tried that, but it should not counteract the reaction that's happening. That would actually be really fun, to just drop a bunch of colors in there and watch a real lava lamp come to life.
Host Amber Smith: Now, I also have a question about the Mentos because I think there's different flavors. Does that matter? Have you found that one flavor is more powerful than another?
Deanna Clemmer: For like my biggest explosions. I've always used the original Mentos. Those tend to be cheaper than the flavored ones, but the type of Mentos, the flavor of Mentos, should not matter.
It's usually about a quantity of Mentos that you try to, like, chuck in there as soon as possible. The flavor will not matter. It just needs to be Mentos.
Host Amber Smith: Now, if someone tries this, and it doesn't work, what are some things that they may have done wrong?
Deanna Clemmer: I know a lot of people will try to do this with perhaps soda that's been open for a couple days and soda that's been flat. So I would recommend that if anyone tries to do this slow volcanic explosion that you use fresh soda. If you go out and you buy like a 12-ounce of Coke, Dr Pepper, or what have you, that it's like the first time you've opened it, because the moment that basically all the carbonation leaves the soda, you're not going to get that reaction with the Mentos.
Host Amber Smith: Does it matter the temperature of the soda? Does it need to be refrigerated first?
Deanna Clemmer: Oh, no. It can be anywhere from refrigerated to room temperature. That's not going to matter. It's more about the carbonation and the staleness of the soda that will affect the reaction that you're seeing.
Host Amber Smith: Now, you've mentioned your mom a few times in this interview. Is she a scientist as well?
Deanna Clemmer: My mom is actually a nurse, but she is, whether or not she wants to admit it, she's a huge nerd, just like me. She really enjoyed when we were kids, because there was three of us and all of my cousins were the same age, so there was a solid group of about 20 of us, and she really liked us to do hands-on things, not just because they were fun, but she would also explain to us why these things were happening. And, I think I'm the only one of my cousins who actually was like, yeah, I want to do that for the rest of my life. But my mom is the one who really got me into those books that are for children about scientific experiments and trying to teach children about science through their everyday lives.
And I think that is vital. Even if the child does not necessarily want to do anything scientific in their future, but basically understanding why the things around you are happening, I think is always important for children.
Host Amber Smith: So if a parent listening to this, if they try these experiments with their kids this summer and they see that there's a lot of enthusiasm there, then maybe that's something to follow up on and bring them to do some other things.
Deanna Clemmer: Oh, absolutely. I'm so happy about this. I wish they had this when I was a kid. I mean, when I was a kid, I had like Bill Nye, the "science guy," right? But I know that on Netflix, there's a few shows about like Kate the scientist, people love her, you know, there's like Doc Ock, that people love, as well, or Doc McStuffins, too; things like that.
Those kind of TV shows kind of show kids more of what they can do. But I know in Syracuse there are a few outreach scientific things in the community, such as like the MOST (Museum of Science and Technology) museum that's located in Armory Square, and that museum does phenomenal things with kids throughout the year, especially during the summer, when kids are out of school.
So I think that if you see that your kid is just lighting up, not just because of the candy, but lighting up because they're excited about the activities that they did led to something so cool, I would definitely encourage parents to reach out, try to find these summer activities and maybe even some after-school things during the year to encourage these children to pursue more of these scientific things. And I think the reason why it's so important is because we kind of grew up believing that science is all very serious and very stern and very difficult, but a lot of it comes from within the child and their love and passion for it, so I believe that anytime you see any kind of passion within a child, it should be nurtured because you want people to do what they love and the more that they do what they love and that they're passionate about it, the better they're going to be at it. So any child that I see that even has a glimmer of something scientific in their mind, I am taking them to everything I can possibly find.
And I'm really happy that there's more resources for that for children to explore all these scientific avenues.
Host Amber Smith: Tell me a little bit more about your career. I know you're in microbiology/immunology right now, but how did you get there?
Deanna Clemmer: I did a lot of outreach when I was a kid, even though I was the child, I wanted to be a part of every scientific thing I found. I mean, my mom would drive a couple cities to drop me off at science fairs that were not for my school, but very exciting. So Iheld onto that as I got older. And once I got to middle school, high school, I was very much that person that wanted to be a part of anything physics, science, all of that.
And then once I got to college, I was able to really, really stick my nose in it, immerse myself into it because my institution had a lot of opportunities to pursue all these scientific avenues. So once I got out of college, I was like, I want to do this for life . So I really just dedicated myself to, I still do, outreach. I mean, the pandemic got in the way of that a little bit, but I still try to do as much outreach as possible that I can, every level fromkindergarten doing scientific experiments to people who are a little bit older than me that have children, that they want to do these things with.
I got into it because my lab focuses on immuno-metabolism, which is essentially someone's immune system. So, white blood cells, T cells, things that fight off viruses and pathogens, and how our metabolism as humans, as host of these viruses or pathogens or germs, affects how maybe someone will get sick or how their body cures the sickness that is within them. So things like metabolites, whenever we think of that as people, everyone always like, "Oh, you mean that thing that stops me from gaining weight I'm young?" and it's really more of just your diet and things that the nutrients that your body pools to keep your body running. So that's what my lab actually focuses on.
As far as like experiments that I do from day to day, they're very much the things that you see on TV. I have a station where I have to put my hands through like a, space station.
I have to work on things like that, just to keep us all safe from the pathogens and things that we work with. But I also do like the very stereotypical things that you see on TV, when someone has a beaker, and they're pouring something into the beaker, and they're hoping that it doesn't explode. I do a lot of those very simple experimentsjust so that we can have a foundation for the work that we're doing as a lab.
Host Amber Smith: Well, it sounds very interesting, very exciting. Thank you so much for making time to talk to me.
Deanna Clemmer: Of course. Thank you for having me.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Deanna Clemmer. She's a graduate student at Upstate working in the lab of Dr. Harry E. Taylor. "The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe. Find our archive of previous episodes at upstate.edu/informed.
This is your host, Amber Smith, thanking you for listening.