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When I had the opportunity to participate in the AACT-DOW Teacher Summit in 2016, I finally recognized that as an elementary science teacher I was in fact a chemistry teacher. Although we teachers at the elementary level are responsible to instruct all fields of science, each field can be broken down into its parts … or particles! Therein lies chemistry. We may not always explicitly teach our students in such detail, but certainly when teaching about matter and its changes and properties, and fielding students’ questions about the topic, chemistry is what helps us to bring meaning and understanding to student learning.


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In my experience, many young students proclaim that they’re interested in science to “make potions” or “make things explode.” With their interests in mind, I have found some exciting opportunities to help provide our children with such experiences. Both NASA and AACT are favorite organizations of mine, and are great resources for grade-level-specific STEM and chemistry activities for teachers to use in their classrooms.

2019 is the perfect time to begin using these resources, as we celebrate 50 years since landing on the moon, and the upcoming launch of the new Space Launch System. We are also celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table. Potions and combustion du jour! With these topics in mind, I would like to share some ideas for amalgamating space science and chemistry into your elementary science instruction as you embrace the chemistry teacher within you!

I often implement a 5E instructional model with my science students. Both the Engage and Elaborate portions allow for making references or applications of a concept to real-world situations. These are the parts of my lessons that I use to talk about topics like space science or the periodic table. The NASA website has many helpful resources, including rocket launches and landings shown on live NASA TV, both of which are exciting and explosive moments to witness! The Rocket Challenge resource from the AACT library is a great opportunity for students to have a hands-on experience with this chemistry, and is also aligned to NGSS. In addition, the many teaching resources that AACT offers can help educators better understand and explain the chemistry concepts and expected results, furthering our knowledge as teachers so that we can best respond to student inquiries.


At the beginning of the school year, I first focus on physical properties of matter with my young students. I like to start with a STEM activity that requires collaboration among students, and that uses a variety of materials. The design of the activity allows students to investigate the properties of those materials as well as identify their uses and limitations. After the hands-on portion, we use the periodic table to identify the materials, and then discuss how those materials apply to space exploration.

This year I will begin with a focus on the physical property of density with my fifth-grade students. I use a STEM activity that challenges students to construct an aluminum boat that can hold the most pennies. For your reference, the AACT library showcases a similar activity called Penny Boats.

Figure 1. Image from the AACT Density Animation.

In connection with this activity, I’ll take a constructed boat, crumple it into a ball, and place it into the water — where it will proceed to sink. Other various objects will also be placed into the water, including a cantaloupe and a grape. A discussion will ensue to explain why objects sink or float (please note that no reference to buoyancy is made). This usually reveals that some students still think large, heavy objects will always sink. Rather than quickly correcting misconceptions, I’ll show the AACT density animation. It compares the density of several different objects, and then represents each as the particles they are composed of. This visualization and further elaboration helps students see the relationship between size, or volume, and mass — and ultimately how those factors affect density. Fifth-grade students are accustomed to representing matter as particles; and as early as third grade, my students have drawn the spacing of particles to compare solids, liquids, and gases. In this lesson, the same concept is just being applied to the property of density to support student understanding. This is chemistry!

I then use direct instruction to connect this activity with the periodic table. In my classroom, all students are given their own periodic table. I first explain that it is organized by periods and groups, and give students time to study the table and share their observations and questions. Next, we identify the materials used in the STEM activity, such as aluminum, and color them in the corresponding spaces on the table. I inform them that the elements zinc and copper are what make up a penny, and so those are shaded in as well. Making this intentional connection between the periodic table and the materials that we use has been very engaging for students, and so we continue to do this process with subsequent labs. They display a greater interest and understanding of materials that they work with, and are typically excited to locate them on the periodic table.

Connecting learning to real world events

While instructing about physical properties of matter, I also make reference to the upcoming launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2020. It is the largest rocket that will return astronauts to the moon and fly the furthest and deepest into space of all rockets (it took the Challenger 40 trips to space to construct the International Space Station, or ISS. If the SLS had existed then, it would have taken only two trips!). I show images of it and discuss the material chosen to build it. Having used aluminum in the lab, I inform the students that aluminum makes up a large part of the structure of the SLS because of its light weight.

Viewing a rocket launch on NASA TV is always captivating. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the combustion of the gases, or elements, involved in creating the force to push the rocket forward. The fuel is comprised of a mixture of liquid helium and liquid hydrogen. In their gas state, neither is dense enough to be efficient as fuel, so they are changed into their liquid form (becoming denser) so that more fuel can be contained in the core (making this a great opportunity to review states of matter and density). Solid fuel is used in the rocket boosters. It contains aluminum. To simplify the science involved, water and aluminum make the SLS fly! Taking a few minutes to elaborate by showing how lessons apply to the real world gives meaning and relevance for learning (and keeps your higher learners engaged too).

Over time, I have found that I can make many connections to space science in my lessons. For example, when we investigate the density of liquids, I ask the question, “Would our lab results be the same in space?” I usually find an ISS video from NASA related to our lab to confirm or dispute our hypothesis. Additionally, it is here that we may fulfill our students’ desire for the explosive part of science. In the elementary science classroom, we can safely work with vinegar and baking soda, or simply add an antacid tablet to water. Some great ideas to consider include:

Remember to return to the periodic table to identify elements used in the lab such as sodium, hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.

One final example to amalgamate chemistry and space science is exploring thermal energy. A useful activity for teaching this concept is called Kitchen Reaction. Students have an opportunity to make many observations with their senses as they observe a chemical reaction, develop skills of measuring temperature change, and form an understanding about thermal energy. Afterwards, we can make the connection to space, where the extreme variations in temperature cannot be overlooked. I make reference to the astronaut suit worn on space walks, and the material used to construct the ISS and satellites. I inform the students that a materials engineer would have to select material that can withstand the extreme temperatures in space.

Figure 2. Students test the ability of their heat shield to protect a piece of chocolate from melting.

With these concepts in mind, I present students with a STEM challenge where students construct a heat shield such as that used on a space module returning to Earth with our astronauts. The precious cargo in our activity is a piece of chocolate, and a hair dryer is the heat source. Using any material available (aluminum foil, paper, cardboard, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, etc.) students have to construct a shield to protect the chocolate from melting when heat is applied. Needless to say, the children are engaged, and understand how the activity applies to what they are being taught.

Chemistry and space science: a wonderful combination to make learning enjoyable and interesting — and hopefully, one that will lead some of our students onto a career path they might not otherwise consider.

Don’t count yourself out as a chemistry teacher. Chemistry isn’t all about mixtures, solutions, and the making of “potions” or explosions. When exploring and explaining the properties and changes of matter and energy, you’re a chemistry teacher. Both NASA and AACT have many resources to broaden your understanding of concepts, and provide you with a vast number of lessons, demonstrations, and labs. I hope that I’ve helped you to recognize the chemistry teacher that is within you. I confess that it had to be brought to my attention too — and I’m thankful that it was!

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