Program 43: Polymer Fun…Orbs, Flubber & Slime!

As my loyal followers may have noticed, I LOVE playing with polymers! There are so many ways to have fun with them. And since this program was going to be the last program before we go on summer hiatus and resume in September, I wanted to let my scientists go wild (and get nice and messy) with some fabulous polymer projects 🙂

I started our program by chatting with my scientists about polymers… Polymers can be found just about everywhere – in places you might not even have realized. They are in natural products like wool and silk (among many others), and then also in many man-made synthetic materials like nylon and rubber. Even the double-helix strand of DNA is a form of a polymer known as a “biopolymer.”  But what exactly is a polymer?

The word polymer means “many parts.” The individual parts that actually combine to form a polymer chain are called monomers.  Sometimes a substance can actually help polymer chains link together and form a more solid substance. The youtube video by TTScienceClub below (I love this video!) does a great job of graphically showing the basic formation of polymers and linked polymer chains:

We also discussed how polymers can be both “good” and “bad.” Polymer products (like water bottles) can be cheap, durable, and convenient. But sometimes polymers can do some harm (taking over landfills because they aren’t biodegradable, being accidentally ingested by animals, etc.). I reminded my scientists it’s always good to investigate and know all sides to a story and to keep an open mind when learning about anything.

EXPERIMENT #1:  POLYMER ORBS

Steve Spangler Orbs

Steve Spangler Orbs

[NOTE: I really think of this as a take-home experiment.]

Materials:

Steve Spangler sells a wonderful product called “Orbs” (colorful growing orb spheres). They arrive as a tiny sack of itty-bitty polymer beads…but soaking them in water allows the magic to happen! When you soak them in water for 5-6 hours, each bead absorbs about 300 times its weight in water, allowing the beads to become the size of a large marble (a large, squishy marble, that is) 🙂

I gave each scientist a cup with 5 different-colored beads in it, and also a mini-cup with 5 like-colored orbs fully grown (which I prepped the day before; there’s no danger to letting the orbs sit in excess water for any period of time). The kids could see just how much water the polymer orbs took in and how large they grew. I asked them to add water to the tiny, unsaturated beads so they could watch their rate of absorption over the course of our 1-hour program. We also had some fun with the fully-grown clear orb in particular. Because of its concave shape, if you roll the clear orb over any tiny printed materials (for example), it will act as a magnifying glass!

DID YOU KNOW…

Superabsorbent polymers are used in countries all over the world to preserve water in the soil, especially during drought conditions. The polymer holds the water until the plants or crops need it, then releases the water to the roots of the plants! [Source: Steve Spangler Orbs Activity Guide]

Each scientist snapped a lid on both cups and was able to take them home to watch them grow to full size. The beauty of these orbs is that – like with other polymer beads – if you let them dehydrate, they will return to their original size! Thus, my G3 scientists can continue to enjoy playing with these polymers time and again at home. We did have some scientists that smashed or broke apart a full-sized orb (after it absorbs water, the orb is softer and gelatinous). I told those scientists to save the pieces, dehydrate them, and see just how tiny those pieces would become!…

EXPERIMENT #2: FLUBBER

Flubber Recipe:

[NOTE: You will find many recipes online – this one from LittleBinsForLittleHands worked great, though I did adjust the recipe into smaller measurements to make my materials go farther while still giving the scientists plenty of flubber to play with :)]

  • 1/4 cup Elmers glue (I used multipurpose white, but I have successfully used clear in the past)
  • 1/8 cup water (room temperature)
  • 1/8 cup liquid starch (I have used both Sta-Flo and Linit brands with success – this time we used Linit which I purchased at ShopRite)
  • Food coloring (optional); WARNING: food coloring will stain clothing/carpets, so if this is a concern, try something fun like glitter or sequins as an add-in for the flubber!

Additional Supplies:

  • Bowls for mixing ingredients in (I used paper bowls with a coating; you can also use plastic bowls if available)
  • Plastic spoons
  • Small plastic cups for pre-measured ingredients (I generally prefer to pre-measure ingredients for my scientists to help the flow of the program so that we have more time for enjoying the product of our experiment)
  • Plastic sandwich bags to take the slime home in
  • Plastic drinking straws…for playing with the flubber! (see content below)

Every young scientist loves a good slime recipe. For our program, I decided we’d try a borax-free slime recipe for “flubber” (borrowed from littlebinsforlittlehands.com).  What’s the difference between slime and flubber, you may ask? Well, slime is a lot “looser” – flubber is a little firmer and more dough-like when it’s mixed. There was a good reason why I chose flubber instead of slime for our main goo recipe…but more on that below 🙂

There’s definitely an order to how you combine the ingredients for any slime recipe. [I pre-measured all of the ingredients so our scientists could focus on the process and exploring the results.]

  • STEP 1. Pour the glue into a mixing bowl.
  • STEP 2. Add the water. Stir until combined. You should get a smooth, milky white liquid.
  • STEP 3. If you want to color your flubber/slime, this is when you add it 🙂
  • FINAL STEP. Pour in the liquid starch. You can start by stirring with a spoon, but pretty quickly you’ll realize that the best way to mix is by using your hands. You need to get in there and do a lot of good squeezing and smooshing, to make sure that all of that liquid starch comes in contact with as much of the glue as possible. In our recipe, the glue contains our polymers, and the starch is what will link all of those polymers together to form our gooey substance.

Some of our scientists LOVED this phase, and others couldn’t stop talking about how gross it was (haha). [REMINDER: Food coloring will stain, so if your goo will be traveling around the room, it’s best if you wear protective smocks or protect your floor/table surfaces.] You may find there’s some liquid starch left over in the bottom of the bowl – that’s okay! It just means that all of your glue polymers have already been linked by liquid starch and the rest of the starch is just excess and unnecessary.

TIP:  If you plan on saving your flubber to play with on another day, you may find that the texture changes a bit. Simply add a little more liquid starch, squeeze and smoosh, and then when the flubber stops absorbing starch you know your flubber is as good as new!

The reason I chose flubber for our goo experiment was that you can actually blow reusable bubbles with flubber! It takes a little practice, but with the right technique, you can blow a REALLY large bubble, pop it, and start all over again using just a simple drinking straw! We had some scientists who used the table surface to support the giant bubbles they were blowing (very creative!).

EXPERIMENT #3: HEAT-SENSITIVE COLOR-CHANGING SLIME

Recipe:

[NOTE: the amounts in parentheses were from the original recipe – I scaled back to ensure that I had enough supplies for every scientist to take home some of this super fun slime!]

  • 4 teaspoons white school glue (1/4 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon water (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 teaspoon thermochromic pigment (3 teaspoons) (This specialty ingredient definitely pinched my budget, but I think it was well worth it. It creates a really terrific effect. I bought two 10-gram bags of the blue pigment from Amazon and was able to stretch it into 22 portions with my modified version of this recipe. Be warned! – the blue pigment is a dye and WILL stain clothing, so be careful when handling…)
  • 4 teaspoons liquid starch (1/4 cup)
  • Food coloring optional

Additional Supplies:

  • Bowls for mixing ingredients in (I used paper bowls with a coating; you can also use plastic bowls if available)
  • Plastic spoons
  • Small plastic cups for pre-measured ingredients (I generally prefer to pre-measure ingredients for my scientists to help the flow of the program so that we have more time for enjoying the product of our experiment)
  • Plastic sandwich bags to take the slime home in
  • Materials that can be either very hot or very cold (see my notes below)

As you can see, the above recipe is very similar to our flubber recipe, but with one striking difference – the addition of “thermochromic pigment.” The pigment reacts to changes in temperature, most noticeably heat. Even when the pigment is just in its bag, you can touch the blue pigment, and it will turn white with the heat from your fingers. When I made my test batch of slime, I took my cues from the Left-Brain-Craft-Brain blog post (linked above to the experiment title) and used yellow food coloring during the creation of my slime. Thus, my final slime (in a resting state) was a turquoise blue, but when hot, turned a nice yellow. Also, if exposed to extreme cold (like a gel pack from the freezer), it turned a very deep blue.

I let each scientist determine which food coloring they wanted to use (or even to use none at all if they were fine with it just turning white when hot). The basic slime-creating steps are the same as the ones we used for the flubber above:

  1. Mix the glue and water together in a bowl.
  2. Add the food color of your choice.
  3. NEW STEP! This is when you (carefully) mix in the pigment. It will take a while to combine, so you need to be careful when stirring or you’ll have pigment powder flying out of the bowl. But slow and steady wins the race with this one! You should have a smooth blue liquid when all the powder is combined.
  4. Add the liquid starch and stir. At some point, you will need to get in there with your hands and squeeze until all of the glue has combined with as much of the liquid starch as it needs.

Be aware that the pigment will temporarily stain most hands a faint blue, but that will disappear with washings in a day or so (just like food coloring does). If you don’t want to worry about staining, you can just use some disposable vinyl gloves to keep hands nice and clean 🙂

The trickiest part of this experiment was figuring out how to allow the scientists to heat the slime enough to see a dramatic color change. I tried hair dryers and heating pads with no good results, but I did figure out a safe way to pass around hot water while limiting the chance that a scientist could get burned. I used the mini cups from the Orb experiment (which come with snap-on lids), filled them half-way with hot water from my electric kettle, snapped on those lids, and then allowed the scientists to press the bottom of the cup to the top of their slime. It worked great! We ran out of time, so I was unable to pass around all of the gel packs I had borrowed from staff members for the cold reaction, but I encouraged the scientists to continue playing with the slime once they got home.

This program was a terrific way for us to start off the summer here in Cheshire! Be sure to check out the fun video I made with some photos/clips from our program below.

One final note about CLEAN-UP for any goo/slime experiment:

It is NEVER a good idea to allow slime/goo to go down sink drains. It should always be thrown in the trash when you’re ready to get rid of it. If you have lab coats covered in slime – like I did – I would not recommend using a personal washing machine to clean the coats. Usually I clean coats at my leisure with my home machine, but a program like this is the one time I splurge and pay for professionals to handle it. My local cleaners actually were able to remove not only the slime, but also most of the color! It just takes a lot of effort with extremely hot water, and many, many, many soaks in a vat of hard-core bleach. You might be up for the challenge, but I’ll let the professionals handle this one 🙂

See you in September when we’re back with more great programming fun!…

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