A Winter Blast of Frozen Science!

Winter conjures many wonderful things to our imaginations. Snow covered hills, warm jackets and mittens covered in shimmering snow, and icycles dangling down from rooftops creating a magical winter wonderland! Of course, while much of the country is inundated with icy conditions, snow days, and freezing temperatures, those of us who live in dry areas may find ourselves longing for a way to experience some of that icy play for ourselves! With these experiments, you can bring a winter blast of frozen science right into your home, wherever you live, no matter what time of year! All you need is some ice, salt, food coloring, and you’ll be ready to dive into the properties of chemistry and physics with a hefty dose of creativity!


Materials Needed:

Tap water
Rock salt
Food coloring
Optional: Kosher salt and table salt


Fill your balloon with tap water from the sink. Then, put it in your freezer and leave it to freeze overnight.
The next day, unwrap the balloon to reveal a frozen ball of ice! Set your frozen iceball on to your bowl and prepare your salts and food coloring.

Place some rock salt on top of the ice ball. Observe what happens as the salt makes contact with the ice. Sprinkle a small amount of kosher salt onto a different area of the ice ball. If you have table salt on hand, do the same with that. Do you notice any differences when salt crystals of different sizes interact with the ice ball?

Place a few handfuls of rock salt into the bowl and set the ice ball on top of it. Allow it to rest on top of the salt for about five minutes, then shift the ice ball so a different area can be coated by the salt. Do you notice any changes as the ball of ice is left to sit on the salt?

After about 10 or 15 minutes, you should see some nice canyons, valleys, and carvings begin to form on your ice ball. Carefully examine the surface of the ball, and then drop one drop of food coloring into any feature you see.

Use a variety of colors to bring out the changing surface on your ice ball! You can even create your own splashes of watercolor ice art by mixing colors as they blend into each other through the rivers and valleys of your ice!

Take it Further!

If you have a flat small bowl or petri dish, freeze a small amount of water (enough to cover the bottom of the bowl) to create a flat frozen disc. To loosen the disc from the bowl or petri dish, simply place the bowl in some warm water (do not get the water on the ice!) to loosen it until it comes out. Then, you can place various salt crystals on the surface of your flat disk to create a colorful frozen sun catcher!

After your finished with your creative ice play, it’s time to put your salt to work with some chemistry, physics, and ice cream!


Materials Needed:

1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups ice
1/2 cup rock salt
1 gallon sized freezer bag
1 sandwich bag
(Sugar free option: replace sugar and vanilla with sugar free vanilla syrup, or sugar free simple syrup and vanilla extract)


Pour half and half, sugar, and vanilla into your small sandwich bag. Close the bag so that it is airtight and completely sealed.

Place the sandwich bag into the gallon sized freezer bag. Then, add the ice and the salt into the freezer bag. Seal the bag, leaving a small amount of air inside, but make sure it is sealed tightly closed.

Shake the freezer bag for about 7-10 minutes, so that the ice and salt move across the bag with the liquid mixture. Shake it in all kinds of directions, and any way you like, just as long as you keep shaking it constantly until the liquid has reached a preferred ice cream state. You can stop every once in a while to feel the bag of liquid and see if it is to your liking.

Once you’ve reached your preferred ice cream consistency, open the freezer bag and pull out your ice cream bag. Give it a quick rinse with some cold water to remove all of the salt. Open the bag, pour out your ice cream, and enjoy!

Take it Further!

Try adding small pieces of fruit to your ice cream! Add a coule of drops of red food coloring with some small diced strawberries for a delicious fruity treat! You can also try adding cocoa, chocolate chips, coconut, or any other additions to your ice cream.

If you want to make this an experiment, try this with different sized salt crystals. Will this process take longer with kosher salt or table salt? What if you were to skip the salt entirely? Would you still get the same result, a delicious bowl of frozen ice cream?

You may have noticed during your ice cream shake up, that as you were moving the salt and ice around, the ice was melting as your ice cream was freezing up! Or, when you were creating your ice sculptures, that the ice was melting even as it seemed to grow colder to the touch! Next up, we’ll explore why salt melts ice in the first place, as well as why it can feel so much colder in your hands while you’re working with it.

What’s Happening?

In colder climates, salt is often used on icy roads to melt the ice to make the roads safe for transportation. This works because salt lowers the freezing point of ice, which will turn it into a liquid instead of a solid, even at freezing temperatures! In order to examine how this works, we first need to understand the crazy interplay of atoms, molecules, and heat energy that occurs when ice is formed!

Ice forms as the temperature of liquid water drops to freezing, at 0° Celcius or 32° Farenheit. This slows down the motion of molecules in the water until they lock together in a crystalline structure, the solid form of water known as ice! If an ice cube is left on a counter top, the heat energy of the surrounding environment can break apart the bonds between these molecules, causing them to move faster and melt into liquid water.

There is actually an interesting game of tug of war that occurs here, as the atoms are attracted to other atoms still locked into the ice structure! So, you have some molecules ’’being grabbed’’ by the ice, while others are being broken apart by the heat from the surrounding environment. Whichever force is the strongest, wins! If the temperature is low enough to allow the crystal formation to lock and build, then ice will reform and rebuild a solid shape. If the temperature is too warm, too many molecules get broken apart from that structure, causing the ice to melt.

So what does salt have to do with it? When you add something like salt to ice, it interferes with the melting and refreezing that happens on the molecular level in the ice cube. Suddenly, there’s something in the way of the ice structure, and even though the temperature is cool enough, it can’t lock onto these atoms that are floating around as liquid water. So instead of refreezing, the water melts away! This is why the freezing point of ice gets lowered, water that would otherwise remain frozen at 0° Celsius or 32° Farenheit turns to a liquid because the ice has disrupted the molecules’ ability to latch on to each other and retain that solid form.

Why Does Salt Make Melted Ice Colder?

When a substance changes phases of matter (solid, liquid, gas, etc), energy is used as molecules change shape to make different structures. Believe it or not, as water freezes and molecules slow down and lock into position in a crystal structure, it actually takes quite a bit of energy to keep them locked in place! When ice melts, this energy is released as small amounts of heat energy. When you add salt to ice, it lowers the melting point of the ice. So, the ice, already at 0° Celsius, or 32° Farenheit, gives off some of the heat energy it has retained in it’s ice structure. As this heat is given off, the water drops in temperature, even as the ice is melting. In fact, the water can quickly reach a temperature of -20° celsius or -6° farenheiht by the process of releasing heat as it’s melting!

This is also why you should never experiment with ice and salt on your skin. When ice is pressed against your skin, it holds an uncomfortable, but relatively safe 0 degrees. But if you add a layer of salt on your skin, you can quickly drop that temperature to frostbite range, and give yourself frost burns, or even scars! So when you experiment with ice and salt, take care not to let the ice linger on your skin for longer than a few seconds.


The 12 Days Of Science! Day 7: Electric Sculptures With Playdoh LEDs!

This experiment can be found in my award-winning book, Pop Sizzle Boom! 101 Experiments for the Mad Scientist in Every Kid! 

One of our favorite parts of the holiday season involved driving around to find extravagant light displays. We pack cocoa, sing carols, and find new neighborhoods and parks to walk through as we delight in the dazzling, glittering lights around us! We wanted to find a way to combine our love for Christmas lights with our love for science, in a way that would be safe and fun for both my 12-year-old daughter and my 3-year-old toddler! We found our answer with every kid’s favorite toy… playdough!

With this experiment, you can create your own electrical circuits with the safety of playdough, right in your living room! By combining chemistry, physics, and art, you can explore sculpture and electricity, with store-bought Playdoh, or by making your own conductive playdough!

In this post, you’ll find instructions on how to set up your playdough sculptures, recipes for conductive playdough (you can also use store-bought Playdoh) and insulated dough, and some troubleshooting tips!

Supercharged Creativity With Playdough Electronics!

Materials Needed:

Modeling clay*
AA battery pack with wires (4 pack battery holder)
4 AA batteries
Spade terminals (18-22 gauge)
Wire crimpers
LED lights
Note: This post contains affiliate links to products

* Recipes for DIY playdough and DIY insulated dough can be found at the end of this post. You can use modeling clay as insulated dough (dough that isn’t conductive and will act as a wall for your electricity so you don’t short out your circuit!), but this can be stiff and difficult to work with at times. The insulated dough can be used with cookie cutters or with your hands to create large and easily moldable barriers to create fun and creative works of electric art!


Remove the batteries from the battery pack. If the wires attached to your battery pack do not have a small amount of exposed wire at each end, use your wire strippers to cut and peel away a small part of the insulated coating.

Take the exposed end of the wire and run it through the spade terminal, until it is inside the small hollow groove near the base of the fork. Use your crimpers to tightly crimp the groove onto the wires.

Take two small pieces of conductive Playdoh, and roll them into a log shape. Stick the spade terminals into each one, so that you have a red wire sticking into one piece of dough, and the black wire into the other.

Safety Tip: Never touch the wires to the batteries, and try to keep them separated from each other. Never touch the posts of your LEDs to your battery terminals!


Look closely at the posts of the LED light. One post is slightly longer than the other. This longer end goes into the positive dough, the piece with the red wire sticking through it. The other end goes in the negative.

Place your separate dough pieces on a flat surface, ½” apart. Then, take out one of your LEDs, and place each leg into the dough (remember, the long end goes in the positive dough, the short end into the negative)! 

Build a bridge of LEDs with your conductive Playdough!  How many LEDs can you fit onto your conductive dough?

Push the two pieces of dough together. What happens to the light when the dough is touching?

Take a small piece of your modeling clay or insulated dough, and roll it into a small log shape, the same length as your Playdough dough.

Place it in the middle of the pieces, and then push them together. Now, the conductive Playdough is closer together, but not touching! You’ve been a wall of insulation between your dough! With everything touching, will your LEDs light up?

You can use your playdough and modeling clay to build all kinds of fun and creative electric sculptures! You just need to make sure that your two playdough wires aren’t touching each other. Make sure the modeling clay is between your two layers of playdough so you can keep your electric circuit going! We’ve used our electric playdough circuits through our summer camps and science programs, and the kids have come up with all kinds of creative designs!

Here are some examples of what kids have done with our electric Playdough sculptures:

One of the easiest designs to make is a beautiful butterfly! This is done with two large pieces of playdough, with the body of the butterfly being made with insulated dough or modeling clay.

Another design kids love to make is lighting up their own playdough burgers!

Some kids have designed their own electric cars with their playdough circuits:

And of course, kids also loved creating their own electric emojis!

Making playdough electronics easy for the little ones!

Finally, we took our playdough electronics experiments to a preschool storytime event at our local library. With kids ages 3-6, we needed to find a way to make this toddler-friendly, and easy for little hands to work with. We found cookie cutters helped make this super easy and fun for little hands! We also found that the insulated dough was much easier for little kids to work with than the stiff modeling clay. Use the cookie cutters to make two playdough shapes and one insulated dough shape. Then make a sandwich with two pieces of playdough on the outside and the insulated dough in the middle. The kids loved making snowmen, gingerbread people, and candy canes light up like Christmas trees!

What’s Happening?

When you lit your lights with your battery and dough, you created a closed circuit. This is when electricity has a clear path from its power source (the battery pack) through a conductor (your dough), and into a device that uses that power (the light bulb!). If you were to remove one of the pegs of the light bulb from the dough, the light would turn off, the circuit would be open. Electricity works effectively to power a variety of objects through closed circuits!

How does the dough work to conduct this electricity? Your conductive dough is a conductor, which simply means that it easily allows electricity to run through it. The salt and the tap water, both contain ions, which give the dough a negative charge, which easily allows the electrons from the battery (which is where the electricity comes from!) to flow through your light source

When you placed your conductive dough slightly apart, and bridged the gap with your lights, your lights turned on with the power of electricity! However, when you touched the dough together, the lights turned off, because you created a short circuit! This is when a path of electricity has little to no resistance, so the charges meet, resulting in an excess of heat and energy which can burn out or damage your bulbs.

Your insulated dough, however, has a high resistance, which builds a wall between the electrons in the battery, and your light source. Instead of using salt and tap water, which has a lot of electrically charged ions, you used sugar and distilled water, which has a high resistance to electrical flow. You can use your insulated dough to block the current from your conductive dough when they’re touching. This allows you to build smaller and more intricate shapes with your dough, while also maintaining your closed circuit!

Conductive and Insulated Dough Recipes!

Conductive Dough

This is your basic playdough recipe. Its super easy and takes about ten minutes to make!

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup salt
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Food coloring

Add dry ingredients to a medium-sized pot, then stir until they’re thoroughly combined. Add the wet ingredients, and stir again until everything is mixed. Make sure to break any lumps down so the flour is thoroughly combined with the oil and water.

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring continuously. Once the dough starts getting a little thick and lumpy, add about ten drops of food coloring to create a colored dough. Stir to combine until your dough is one solid color.

Once the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the pot and stick to your spoon, its ready to take out! Put it in a bowl to let it cool. Once its cool to the touch, you can add 1 tbsp of oil and knead the dough until it is smooth and pliable. Then you can put it in a plastic bag or airtight Tupperware container to store for future use!

Insulated Dough

This is similar to a playdough recipe, but it uses sugar instead of salt, and requires no cooking.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup distilled water

Combine your dry ingredients into a medium mixing bowl. Then, add the oil and stir until the dough gets a little lumpy. Add small splashes of distilled water until the flour has absorbed the water and reached a dough like consistency. I’ve found that it takes about 1/4 cup of distilled water to reach that point.

Add a few pinches of flour to knead into the dough until it no longer sticks to your hands. Once it has reached a consistency similar to bread dough (doesn’t stick to your hands, you can roll it into a ball), you can place it in a plastic bag or airtight Tupperware container for storage.

Trouble Shooting Tips

Are your lights not lighting up? Try these tips!

1. Double check to make absolutely certain that your two pieces of playdough are not touching each other. Make sure there is a good amount of modeling clay or insulated dough between your playdough pieces. Remember, if your playdough wires touch, you’ll short the circuit and the lights won’t work!

2. Take your LEDs out and double check that the long end is in the positive wire, and the short end is in the negative. Electricity flows in one direction in these lights, so if they’re placed in the wrong Playdough wires, they won’t work!

3. Take out the battery wires and check to make sure there’s enough playdough to get a good connection. If your pieces of playdough are too thin, the wires may not have enough surface area of conductivity to push the electricity through. Try thickening up your pieces of playdough and then putting your wires back in.

4. After about an hour of usage, the salt in the playdough will begin to corrode the surface of the spade terminals. To replace them, simply use your wire cutters to cut off the wire right at the end of the terminal. Use the strippers to strip a piece of rubber, exposing a small amount of wire. Then, grab a new terminal and crimp it on! They’ll be as good as new so you can keep experimenting with your playdough sculptures!


Exploring the Science of Surface Tension!

Have you ever seen a water droplet on a leaf? Have you seen little water skippers or other critters walk on water in a puddle or a pool? Have you ever wondered why water can seem to take on a spherical shape, or why some things can float or walk on water, without falling in? Water has some fascinating properties, both in its way to expand when frozen and in the ability of water molecules to cling tightly together in a bond of surface tension! Water molecules have a tendency to bond closely together, repelling away from other molecules (such as molecules found in the atmosphere). It’s because of these super tight bonds, that water appears to take on a sphere shape when a droplet falls on a leaf, or if you drop several drops on to a penny. The molecules pull together so tightly towards each other, and away from everything else, that they form a sort of “skin” or “bubble” on to each other!

This surface tension is also a key element in how plants get water and nutrients from the ground! This skin of water clings tightly to each other, even as the water droplets are pulled up the xylem of plants, inching along the stem until they reach the leaves and flower petals. Once they reach the leaves, they take the nutrients they’ve carried throughout the veins of the leaves to deposit nutritious minerals to the cells of the plant!

You can explore the properties of surface tension with some super fun experiments, that are easy to set up right in your home! The best part is, the key ingredient for these experiments is just water, so you’re sure to have the supplies on hand!

Find a Lens With A Drop Of Water!

Did you know that those little spheres of water droplets can actually magnify the objects on which they’re resting? Grab a nickel, a dime, and a quarter, and a small glass of water, and get ready to be amazed by the magnifying power of spheres and lenses!

Materials Needed:

A variety of coins
A medicine dropper (in a pinch, your finger will work as well)
A small cup of water


Flip your coins so that they are facing “heads up”. Then, take a medicine dropper and place 3 drops of water right on top of each other, over one part of your coin.

Try placing your drops on different places of your coin. A good place to magnify might be on the stamped date that the coin was minted with, or a phrase on the coin. You can also place it on a part of the image on the coin itself. Just choose one small area to magnify, and place your water on it!

Test this on a variety of coins, to see if you can magnify different areas of your coin!

Take it Further!

You can make this an experiment, by testing different variables with your water. Try using salt water, or water with a drop of dish soap in it. Will these variables change the way your water can collect into a spherical formation? Some substances will bond readily to water molecules, pulling them away from each other to connect to the substance. This may break the surface tension of the water, changing how it interacts with your coin!

What’s Happening?

Surface tension is the process by which water molecules will pull in towards each other, and down to the rest of the water molecules beneath the surface. When they do this, they’re also pulling away from other substances, like the air in the atmosphere around you. This curved water droplet can also bend light as it shines through! Just like any curved lens, when a light goes through the curved surface, it refracts and bends, which can magnify the image that’s on the other side of the lens! Thus, even a drop of water can act as a magnifying glass!

Another great way to play with surface tension, and perhaps have a few tricks up your sleeve at the same time, is with this super fun experiment!

Poking Holes and Plugging Leaks!

Materials Needed

1-gallon Freezer bag
several sharpened pencils


Fill your bag until it is 3/4 filled with water. Seal it shut, leaving a small pocket of air inside.

Sharpen your pencils until the point is sharp to the touch. Sharpen about 5 or 6 pencils, and then set them aside.

One by one, pick up your pencils and stab them through your bag! Firmly press the point of the pencil into the bag, and keep pushing until it comes out on the other side.

Repeat this step with all of your pencils. Poke them through at different angles, and different distances.

How many pencils can you push through your bag until it starts leaking?

What’s Happening?

Have you ever made a batch of gooey slime? Slime is made up of a substance called polymers which is essentially a lot of tiny molecules linked together into strong and flexible chains! Many things in our lives consist of polymers, including the plastic bags you used in your experiment!

When you poked the sharp pencil through the bag, these polymer chains linked around the plastic, holding close to your pencil, creating a seal of polymer plastic around the pencil! There’s another force at play here too – the force of surface tension! The water molecules are heavily attracted to each other, pulling in tight together to pull away from air and other outside materials. When the seal was created by the polymers in the bag, the surface tension of the water also created a sort of film around itself, preventing the water from spilling out!

Take it Further!

The activities above are demonstrations, in that they demonstrate a known scientific effect in reality. To make these true experiments, try adding some variables! You can change the temperature of your water, or add variables like salt, oil, or diluted vinegar to see if these additives change the outcome of your experiments! You can also try using a variety of plastic bags in the Poking Holes and Plugging Leaks experiment. Will freezer bags work the same as regular sandwich bags? Do brands matter, or will dollar store bags work the same as brand name bags? Try your experiments, and if you do see changes in your results, repeat your experiments to see if you can find the cause of those changes!

Another way to experiment with these activities is to try to break the surface tension! Soap has a tendency to grab onto water molecules and pull them apart from their tendency to link together. If you make a lens with your water, and touch a Q-tip coated in soap to it, you might just find your lens breaking apart and spilling off the surface! Try this with your plastic bag experiment too. Will the water still form the same seals around the pencils if you add soap to the bag?

Follow the steps of the Scientific Method: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Draw Conclusions, and Communicate Your Results!


A Love Letter to MACH1 at the Phoenix Public Library

Burton Barry Library Image Credit: Modular

On Saturday, July 15th, 2017, a powerful monsoon powered microburst hit downtown Phoenix, and severely damaged Phoenix’s Burton Barr library, resulting in an indefinite closure while repairs are underway. The MACH1 maker space took much of the damage, and will be closed for longer, possibly for months as repairs to the building and replenishing of hundreds of thousands of dollars in STEM and high tech maker space supplies are assessed and replaced. This has left the science community reeling, as parents and kids all around the valley were left with canceling of summer STEM programming (including our own Atomic Adventures!) and left without their home of science, innovation, creativity, and maker space fun.

At Hacker Haven, kids build and used their own iPhone microscopes

The Burton Barr Library has long been a beacon of science, art, literature, and technology for our city, as this beautiful building has housed architectural wonder, rare historical artifacts and documents (including documents from the city’s founding, and ancient clay tablets used on the Guttenberg Press!), support for arts and humanities, and of course, the expansive shelves filled with doors to worlds unknown, as the books within hold an infinite world of imagination for hearts that wander.

Much of the discussion following the storm has centered around the rare books, historical documents, and of course the expansive floors of knowledge within the library. But today, I’d like to take a look at that MACH1 room, on the fourth floor that is filled with science, opportunity, empowerment, innovation, and creativity for kids, teens, and adults in the Phoenix Community. The fourth floor has become a center of science and innovation with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of robotics equipment, Google and NASA funded space, programming, engineering, biology, and lab supplies. In the walls of our library, our community could find itself transported into an epic lab space, where curiosity reigned, and kids were empowered to use the tools of science to create and experiment with whatever their heart desires. Continue reading

Climate Investigators: Carbon in the Atmosphere!

This is the first post in a set of Climate Investigators Summer Camp resources! In each post, I’ll outline the discussion topics, experiments, activities, predictions, and observations, as well as video and digital resources we used in each of our camps. Today, we begin with Carbon in the Atmosphere! Parents, educators, and teachers, please feel free to use these resources as you investigate the science behind climate change and its impacts around the world with kids in your community! Here is a PDF of the outline, class setup, videos, and resources. 

Experiments within the post: Rainbow Cupcake Ice Cores, Greenhouse Gas Measurements in Soda Bottles, and Take-Home Ice Core Density Columns

Introduction: What’s in the air around us?
For our first day of Climate Investigators Climate Science Camp, we started with the basics of climate change, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and how increased carbon correlates to an increase in temperature. We started off with a discussion of what actually comprises the atmosphere around us. Kids eagerly shouted out “Nitrogen!”, “Oxygen!”, “Argon!”, “Carbon Dioxide!”, and even, “Trace amounts of gasses!”. It was fantastic to hear kids talk about what they knew about our atmosphere already.

Discussion: How do we know?
Then, I prompted them with a question – “You’re right! Great job! But….how do we KNOW? How do we know what’s in the atmosphere? How do scientists measure this data? I could tell you we have Mickey Mouse atoms floating around your head, and if you can’t see them, how would you know that was incorrect?” We followed this with a discussion of atmosphere measurements, how scientists are constantly measuring the atmosphere, all around the world, looking to see what gasses are in the air, as well as what quantities there are.

They collect samples of air from high towers, aircraft, ships, and at the surface of the Earth, at various collection sites all around the globe! They collect these samples in glass collection flasks and vials and send them to labs for analyzing. After analyzing their samples with spectroscopy (this is also how we determine the atmosphere and gasses found in distant planets and stars!) and infrared lasers, they’re able to understand exactly what elements are in their samples of the atmosphere. Using samples collected all over the Earth, they’re able to build a pretty accurate picture of the composition of the atmosphere.

Okay, so we know what our atmosphere consists of now, but how can we build an accurate picture of our atmosphere over time? How do we know what our atmosphere looked like 500 years ago? A thousand, ten thousand, or even a hundred thousand years ago?

Ice Cores!
Believe it or not, scientists are able to gather accurate measurements of gasses in the atmosphere, by digging into the ground! Specifically, scientists dig deep into the glaciers at the north and south poles. If you think about the Grand Canyon, you’ll know that as you look further down through the rocks, you’re going back in time. The dirt at the surface of the ground is the youngest, while the rocks and layers far below the ground were laid down hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years ago! Glacier ice follows the same logic. Snow and ice at the surface of the ground is the newest, while layers far below the surface were frozen thousands of years ago!

Scientists use huge drilling machines to drill through the ice, and pull out a long tube of ice that can range from hundreds of years old, to hundreds of thousands of years old. Trapped in the ice are tiny bubbles that contain trapped air from that time! 

Frozen Balloons:

The night before your discussions, fill a few balloons with water, and freeze them. As you peel off the latex balloon around your frozen ice bal, you’ll see tiny bubbles of trapped air inside the ice! Pass this around to your students so they can examine the air bubbles, and relate this to the discussion of ice coring and trapped gasses.


Now it’s time to watch ice coring in action, and see how scientists can unlock the secrets of atmosphere and climate over hundreds of thousands of years!
(Video length: 3 min, 21 seconds)

Okay, so we’ve learned about how ice cores can be drilled out of the ground, but how does this relate to climate change? Scientists have found correlations between the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the rise and fall of temperature in the Earth’s climate. This video below shows the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, and how scientists have come to these conclusions by graphing data over time.
(Video length: 3 min, 02 seconds)

Now that we’ve learned a bit about ice core drilling and the information we can obtain from it, it’s time to look through your own ice cores and gather data from the layers of your rainbow cupcake ice cores!


Materials Needed:

Rainbow Cupcakes*
Paper Plate
Plastic Knife
1 clear straw

*Instructions for rainbow cupcakes: 

Take any boxed white cake mix, and mix it according to the instructions on the box. Divide your batter into six bowls, and use food coloring to make a batches of purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow cake batter. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners, and spoon about 1 Tbsp of each color, going from dark to light, in the cupcake liners. Don’t stir them together, just layer them on top of each other. Bake according to cupcake instructions on the box. I use Betty Crocker Super Moist French Vanilla, and it has given the best results out of the other brands I’ve tried.

How to prepare rainbow cupcakes:

This is super easy, all it takes is some box cake mix, food coloring, a muffin tin with cupcake liners, and separate bowls for the colors. I used Betty Crocker’s Delights, in French Vanilla, and this cake mix worked the best out of the three brands I tried.

Prepare your cake batter as you would for baking a cake. Then divide your batter into six bowls. Make purple, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow batter, and add them into each muffin tin (with the liner inside!) in that order. I used about 1 Tbsp of each color. Don’t stir them in, just spoon one color layer right on top of the other. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until your cupcakes pass the toothpick test.


Kids take their super-scientific ice core drills (their straws), and plunge them straight into their cupcakes until they touch the bottom of the cake. Pull the straw straight out, and observe the ice core. Have the kids do this repeatedly through different areas of their cupcakes. The kids at our camp plunged them over and over again until they had some amazing core structures!

Once they’re finished drawing samples through the cupcakes, let the kids pull off the top of their cupcakes, and use the knife to cut their cupcakes in half. They can examine the layers of their cupcakes as a cross section of their glaciers!

Now it’s time to analyze their layers. Kids will use their markers and their paper to recreate the ice cores they drilled out of their cupcakes! Make sure they count how many times each color appears in their layer. These colors will be correlated to various additives and variables that can be found in the ice!

A note on the cupcake layers and how kids can use them:

Each layer represents one year of snowfall, while the different colors represent variables found in the ice. Count how many layers you have in your cupcakes, draw a representation of your ice cores, and determine what variables can be found in them. See if you can draw conclusions as to what may have happened, based on the additives and amounts you find.

Variable Color Chart:

Bubbles = air bubbles
Purple = dry snowfall
Blue = volcanic ash
Green = bacteria and algae
Red = dry snowfall
Orange = carbon increase
Yellow = wet snowfall

Have kids draw out the layers in their ice cores, and count how many layers of each color they find. Then relate each color to their corresponding events. Ask if they see any air bubbles, and they’ll probably talk about how small they are. The bubbles found in ice cores are super tiny too, in a very similar way! Ask if the orange colors (the carbon increase) is near the yellow colors (the wet snowfall). Ask them what they think that might mean. Are they related in any way? (Increased greenhouse gasses may lead to warmer temperatures, thus a “wetter snowfall”).

We asked kids to raise their hands if they had ever played with a super dry powdery snow that was hard to pack together. These snowfalls typically occur on cold, dry days. Then we asked kids to raise their hands if they had played with a wet snow that was easy to pack into an almost icy ball. These snowfalls are typically “heavier”, and fall on warmer days with more dense precipitation.

Discussion: Carbon Dioxide and Temperature in the Atmosphere
After looking through their cupcake cores and analyzing their data, it was time to bring home what they had learned about increases in carbon dioxide and how that can correlate to an increase in temperature. I passed around this chart that I pulled from NASA’s website. As kids looked at this chart, I asked them if they could tell me what similarities or differences they could see between the rise and fall of carbon dioxide, as well as the rise and fall of temperature. I then asked them to take a look at the end of the graph, and asked them to tell me what they were seeing in temperature and carbon rates in the atmosphere.

Photo Credit: Nasa Observatory

Observation: Greenhouse Gasses in a Soda Bottle!

The great thing about science, is that you can always test the data to see if you can come to a similar or different conclusion! We could just take these graphs and charts at face value, and trust that scientists had been testing these correlations. Or, we could test it ourselves and come to our own conclusions! With this experiment, we compared a controlled environment, to one with an increase of carbon dioxide. We observed the temperature in these environments over time, and recorded any increases we observed.

Materials Needed:

Two 2 liter soda bottles, cut in half (with caps)
2 cups of soil (one for each bottle)
Small plastic cup with 1 tbsp of baking soda
Dixie cup filled with vinegar
Duct tape
Thermometers (either small flat thermometers you can tape to the inside of the bottles, or a point and shoot thermometer to measure temperature from the outside)
Heat Lamp
Paper and pen to record observations


Cut each soda bottle in half. Fill the bottom of each bottle with 1 cup of potting soil.

In your control (this is the bottle where nothing will be done to it), slide the top of the bottle over the bottom, and tape it in place to create an airtight seal.

In the variable, place the plastic cup with baking soda on the soil. Quickly pour the vinegar into the cup and slide the top of the bottle over the bottom. Tape the bottle to create an air tight seal.

Measure the temperature of both bottles, and record the temperatures onto your paper. You can have kids create their own data tables to record the observations, or you can have volunteers come up to take the temperature and record it on a whiteboard.

Place the bottles under a heat lamp, so they are both evenly heated. After 5 minutes, record the temperatures again. Check and record again after 15 minutes, and 30 minutes. Ask the kids if they see any differences between the two bottles. Ask them what the variable was to the bottle with the higher temperature. This will further cement the relationship between increased carbon dioxide, and increased temperature.

Finally, it’s time for kids to make their own ice cores that they can take home and freeze! Kids will explore layering, density, variables, and make predictions about their ice cores before they take them home. Once they get home, kids should freeze their density columns, standing verticle in the freezer. Then, they should be encouraged to examine their cores once they’ve frozen, and draw a picture of an interesting result they found. Then they can take their pictures into class the next day and discuss their findings in group discussions!


Materials Needed:

Corn Syrup
Food Coloring
Dish Soap
Instant Coffee
Calcium Powder, Alum powder, or Cream of Tartar
Test tubes with caps
Pipettes or medicine droppers
Dixie cups for each of the liquid materials

Layer ice cores in the following order:

Corn syrup
Water and food coloring


After you pass out the cups with the liquids, talk about density. Some liquids are more thick, and denser than others. Which liquids do kids think have the highest density? Which ones do they think have the lowest density?

Have kids pour a small amount of honey into their test tubes, and then have them pour the corn syrup on top of it. Pause here, while they observe their liquids sitting on top of each other. Some kids talked about how they’ve seen this in salad dressings and sauces at home. This is a great time to talk about the different densities they might see around them!

Have the kids use the pipettes to pour water on top of the corn syrup. Add a drop or two of food coloring, and let them observe how it falls. Does the food coloring fall through all of the layers, or just into the water?

Have the kids carefully layer the soap, using another pipette, and pour it slowly down the side of the container. This will allow the soap to form a nice smooth layer on top of the water.

Finally, have the kids add another small amount of water on top of the soap, using the pipette to pour it slowly down the side of the test tube. Once they’re finished, let them add a small pinch of the solid materials into their columns. Have them observe which layers they fall through, as well as any interesting formations as they fall through the column!

The kids in our climate camp had a blast with these activities! It was a great way to learn about the atmosphere around us, as well as how scientists are able to study the makeup of our atmosphere over thousands of years. With the data collected from ice core drilling, scientists can build an accurate model of the climate over time, as well as any changes that have occurred due to events like volcanic eruptions, meteor impacts, changes in the acidity of the atmosphere, and increased greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. With the rainbow cupcake cores, kids really understood how the layering of cupcakes, just like the layers of bark in a tree ring, can give us an idea of the age of the ice that we’re looking at. They were also able to relate how variables in the atmosphere could trigger effects in a global climate. Of course, they also loved the cupcakes because they were delicious! We had plenty extra on hand so the kids could eat them once they were done with their ice cores.

Finally, they loved the ice core density columns! Kids brought in drawings the next day that described the atmosphere, and the effects of greenhouse gasses in trapping UV rays beneath it. They also looked for ice bubbles in their cores, and several of the kids even brought their frozen ice cores into class the next morning so they could show off their fascinating observations!

Of course, the idea of testing out our information with the greenhouse bottle experiment was also fun for the kids. They took great joy in trying to validate the data they were seeing, by tracing the steps of scientists all around the world with utilizing the scientific method to verify these claims! By asking the kids to volunteer to come up to record temperatures and write the observations on the board, they became even more invested in the project we were doing. In fact, by the time we had reached the last day of our camp, most of the kids remembered everything we had talked about and done with ice cores on day one! It was a great way to set the tone of the week, with climate change, its impacts, how we can measure changes in the atmosphere, and how we can measure the effects and come up with solutions to decrease these impacts.

We finished off our day with discussing the carbon cycle, and different ways carbon dioxide is used in the world. It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom, plants use a lot of it to fuel their energy to grow with photosynthesis! The only way it becomes a problem, is when we start seeing amounts so large that the natural carbon cycle can’t balance it out. This is what we’re seeing now with huge increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as huge increases in other greenhouse gasses. Kids came up with ways they could reduce their carbon footprints on the world, and in their communities, by discussing energy usage, carpooling, and coming up with ways to use renewable energy in their lives!

Now that we’ve learned about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses, it’s time to start seeing how the effects can reach beyond the atmosphere! Next up, we’ll tackle Ocean Acidification with chemistry, biology, and renewable energy!

Teachers, educators, and homeschoolers can find an easy outline to these experiments and resources here. Here is a PDF of the outline I used for summer camp, for quick and easy setup, and the chronological order of discussions, videos, and planned activities. Feel free to use them in your classrooms, homes, and communities!

Happy Exploring!