Chemistry can be one of the most exciting subjects in the field of science. It’s fascinating how the elements engage with each other and change their state of matter — and even toxicity — as they connect.
However, much of chemistry class isn’t spent in the lab. This subject requires a lot of math and foundational learning before students can don their safety goggles and start working with solutions.
Fortunately, you can make your chemistry classroom exciting at almost any level and in any part of the learning experience. Here are some lesson plan ideas your students will love.
Why Experiments Need to Be Part of Any Chemistry Classroom
Students are never too young (or too old) to enjoy chemical reactions and fun experiments. In fact, the sooner your students begin conducting experiments on their own, the earlier you can build a foundational love of learning and curiosity about science.
“There is only so much a student can learn by reading a book or attending a lecture,” according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “These types of passive learning techniques have been shown to be far less effective at promoting retention than active learning strategies, which embrace activities as a way to encourage classroom engagement.”
Reinforce Learning With Hands-On Demonstrations
While a student might understand that solids, liquids and gasses make up three types of matter, they’ll retain this information better by seeing and holding these elements in their hands. They’ll learn to ask questions when you hand them slime and ask: “What is it? A solid or a liquid?”
“The process of learning this way takes place through action,” writes former early childhood teacher Tanja McIlroy at Empowered Parents. “The brain is stimulated in multiple areas through practical learning experiences. Through hands-on activities, children are encouraged to learn through exploration.”
Younger kids might work through the scientific method without realizing it. They ask questions with hands-on learning and play with materials to find answers. Some educators have found that hands-on learning increases the amount of information students take home with them. They want to keep thinking about the lessons and exploring the materials after the class has ended.
Experiment Even When Your Resources Are Limited
Megan Jacobs, elementary STEAM teacher and math interventionist who runs the Connecticut MakerSpace Consortium, fought to bring hands-on projects back to the chemistry classroom almost immediately after students returned to school post-COVID. She handed out materials and sheets for each child to keep rather than collecting and sanitizing materials for students to share.
The kids loved having their own materials and hands-on activities again. Jacobs heard stories of students going home and continuing to play with the materials — and some tried to teach the concepts to younger siblings.
Even building small, five-minute experiments in your classroom can engage students and help them better connect to the material. That connection increases the chances they remember the material in a week, month or year.
Start With Mentos and Coke or Elephant Toothpaste
One of the first internet trends in the modern tech era was adding Mentos candies to cola, which of course creates an immediate explosion that looks great on YouTube or other social media. You can use this experiment as a way to introduce your students to chemistry and explain how different chemicals don’t always get along with each other.
“The things you put in the soda aren’t really as smooth as they look with just your eyes,” explains the team at American Chemical Society, when discussing why such a strong reaction happens. “If you could look at the straw, pipe cleaner, and Mento with a super-strong microscope you would see that they have tiny dents, scratches, and bumps on them. The carbon dioxide molecules collect on these places and form bubbles which rise to the surface.”
If you are looking for experiments that explode, grow immediately and otherwise stun your students, look no further than the creation of elephant toothpaste. This experiment uses hydrogen peroxide, yeast, water and dishwashing soap to create an immediate foam reaction that can overflow the bottle the ingredients are placed in.
“The foam you made in this classic Elephant’s Toothpaste reaction is extra-special because each tiny foam bubble is filled with oxygen,” explains Bob Pflugfelder, a science teacher, maker, author and presenter better known as “Science Bob.”
“The yeast acted as a catalyst; a catalyst is used to speed up a reaction. It quickly broke apart the oxygen from the hydrogen peroxide.” Students might even notice that the bottle heats up because of this reaction.
Explore the Different Stages of Matter
Younger learners can discuss the different states of matter in your chemistry classroom with this classic experiment that uses baking soda, vinegar and a balloon. The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County shares a lesson plan where you combine the two elements (one solid and one liquid) and use the balloon to show how they create a gas.
How can two states of matter combine to create a third? How do scientists know what gas is produced? That’s for your students to learn.
Megan Zechman at Education Possible explains that chemical reaction experiments can be used to cover different parts of the chemistry curriculum — even if you simply reference it throughout the year.
“The substances you start with react together and form something different,” she explains. “The reactants create a product. Bonds keeping atoms together are either broken or formed to create new molecules.”
Introduce Non-Newtonian Fluids
There are plenty of fun recipes for exploring non-Newtonian fluids, which act like both a solid and a liquid. The team at Little Bins for Little Hands explains that you can pick up the element like a solid but it starts to flow like a liquid.
The bloggers shared a fun activity with cornstarch that creates a slime-like material that can also be used for sensory play. This highlights that even though science has strict rules, there are always exceptions found throughout nature.
Create Plastic Polymers
Your students likely engage with plastic materials throughout the day, from the pens they use to the backpacks they wear. But how do you make plastic?
The team at Science Buddies has several lesson plans for your chemistry classroom, including one that uses milk and vinegar to create a plastic-like polymer. This activity is appropriate for students in grades 6 to 8 who are learning about the properties of matter.
Make Science Delicious
Many science experiments are meant to be performed around the house and use common ingredients that are cheap and easy to find. This is great news for teachers on a budget.
One of these experiments is from Emma Vanstone, founder of the science education website Science Sparks, who shares a lesson plan for growing sugar crystals which can form over the course of a few days.
“A crystal is a solid material with a naturally geometrically regular form,” she writes. “Some take millions of years to form, such as diamonds. The crystals we [make] take just a few days.”
This also falls under the category of “science you can eat,” as your students will enjoy the candy that comes from the experiment.
Combine Copper and Nitric Acid
Another way to teach on a budget is to show what happens when copper (like an old penny) is placed in nitric acid. This reaction actually gets hot, so make sure you have a sturdy glass beaker to mix chemicals in.
“The copper and nitric acid reaction is a dramatic color change chemistry demonstration,” explains scientist Anne Helmenstine, owner of Science Notes. “The reaction illustrates several chemistry principles, including exothermic reactions, redox reactions, coordination complexes, oxidation, oxidation states, and the metal activity series.”
Helmenstine notes that most pennies are actually zinc plated, which means they might not work in the experiment. She says “a better choice is a piece of copper wool or some copper shavings.” This means your experiment might cost more than one cent.
Play With Fire — Carefully
The Royal Society of Chemistry has several experiments you can bring to your chemistry classroom for students of different ages, including ones that use fire. In this experiment, teachers create a variety of colored flames using different metal salts in the fire. (This is the basis of fireworks.)
It’s a good experiment if you have remote students because they can appreciate the colors while learning in a safe environment. You may want to use a dedicated science lab for this demonstration or an outside learning area.
The RSC sets out several methods for this experiment depending on your classroom, resources and personal preferences. The experiment is meant for upper elementary and middle school students.
Tie Chemistry Back to Environmental Science
Chemistry lessons can tie into other parts of the curriculum.
For example, the team at A2Z Homeschooling has a lesson guide on acids and bases. The discussion starts with the production of acid rain through resources provided by the EPA. Students then view chemical reactions with Alka-Seltzer and create their own pH indicator with cabbage juice.
You turn a quick demonstration into a larger lesson on acid rain, how air pollution causes acid rain, its effects on ecosystems and prevention of acid rain.
Another experiment involves acetone and Styrofoam. In this lesson plan by Ward’s Science for middle school and high school students, you can show how Styrofoam dissolves in some chemicals but never breaks down in others.
Styrofoam is actually 95 percent air, which gets released when it connects to acetone. Despite this, it will still take up to a million years for the material to decompose in the environment. Along with showcasing the experiment, you can open the floor to discussions about chemistry, littering and climate change.
A Word of Caution When Looking for Experiment Ideas
There are hundreds of unique experiments and hands-on activities you can introduce to your chemistry classroom. Always test these experiments before you bring them to your students. Many TikTok videos are highly edited and even faked to create a seemingly perfect experience.
“Never perform labs or experiments you or your students found on the Internet from sources that have not been thoroughly vetted,” warns the Carolina Biological Supply Company. “There are plenty of well-known chemistry demos and labs that can be found from reputable sources that will produce amazing results.”
These lesson plans highlight how chemistry experiments don’t have to be dangerous, expensive or complex to engage your students. Even a small demonstration to start the class can inspire students to learn more about a concept. Try adding a few experiments to your class and see how your students respond.