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Element ornaments made by chemistry students at Walden School of Liberal Arts

Element ornaments made by chemistry students at Walden School of Liberal Arts

Leading up to Winter Break, we were learning about the elements and their properties in my chemistry class at Walden School of Liberal Arts. It seemed a good time to have my students pick an element to research and find out more about, but I didn’t want to have them do the “standard research paper.” I also wanted this project to incorporate some type of art as we are continuing on with the STEM-Arts Alliance program.

I decided to try out an activity that one of our former teachers at Walden, Matt Ellsworth, used last year: have the students pick an element and create an “ornament” that reflects something about the element, such as an outstanding property, a commercial use, its form as a mineral, etc. He also had them write physical values of the element on the ornaments, such as electron configuration, symbol, atomic number, atomic weight, and so forth.

My chemistry class is small, so not a lot of ornaments were made, but the results were overall quite good. As you can see from the photo, the ornaments incorporate some interesting designs and 3D effects. For example, the ornament of the space shuttle is for beryllium because that element was used in the brake linings and window frames of the space shuttle. Beryllium is mined principally in western Utah in the Spor Mountain range. An even more characteristic use would be to design the ornament to look like the James Webb Space Telescope, since its primary mirror is made from Utah beryllium.

A synthetic bismuth crystal. Notice the play of colors across its surface.

A synthetic bismuth crystal. Notice the play of colors across its surface.

The ornament on bismuth is very well done – it shows the structure and iridescent coloring of a single bismuth crystal. I’ve photographed bismuth crystals very much like it on display in Theo Grey’s office in Urbana-Champagne, Illinois. He is a noted collector of the chemical elements, the author of a photographic table of the elements, and creator of the best-selling iPad periodic table app. He was very accommodating to allow me to interview him in his office (sitting at his hand made wooden periodic table conference table) on my way home from Philadelphia in 2009.

This makes a great high-interest activity to do when students start to get restless before Winter Break. They can be quite creative in how they design and build their ornaments, and each year you can save the best ones to display. We simply used unfolded paper clips to hang them in class, and construction paper, scissors, glue, and tape to put them together.

You could also combine this with making ornaments from crystallized supersaturated salt solutions, such as copper (II) sulfate or Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Just look up the solubility of the salts and make a saturated solution, then bend some pipe cleaners in desired shapes representing the various holidays of Winter Break, such as the Star of David, or representing chemistry shapes (a Florence flask, a test tube, a beaker, etc.). Make a hook and hang the shape from a pencil in the solution, making sure not to touch the sides or other ornaments. After a few days, after crystals have formed, the ornaments can be removed and dried. We weren’t able to get to this activity, which I first learned about from a Flinn Scientific lab. But I have the materials and will try it next year.

More Elemental Ornaments: From Upper Left clockwise: A helium balloon, a titanium ring, a copper atom, a xenon buib, a particle accelerator with an argon chamber, a quartz crystal made of  silicon dioxide, an iron horseshoe magnet, a lead pipe, nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and fixated in the soil, a gold chain, a tungsten light bulb filament, a sack of coal (appropriate!), and, of course, Freddie Mercury.

More Elemental Ornaments: From Upper Left clockwise: A helium balloon, a titanium ring, a copper atom, a xenon buib, a particle accelerator with an argon chamber, a quartz crystal made of silicon dioxide, an iron horseshoe magnet, a lead pipe, nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and fixated in the soil, a gold chain, a tungsten light bulb filament, a sack of coal (appropriate!), and, of course, Freddie Mercury.

Another idea would be to use mineral samples as ornaments – with thin wire you can create a cage for a small sample of quartz or calcite or some other crystalline mineral to hang as an ornament. With some good epoxy glue you could attach a hook directly to a crystal. Of course, such mineral samples could also be used as jewelry (necklaces, earrings, etc.). A final idea could be to use some unvarnished copper sheeting or brass sheeting to cut ornament shapes, then use chemicals to create a patina on their surface. For example, if you leave copper and brass in a sealed container with ammonia and salt, they will turn nice blue color. If left in a container with vinegar and salt (or evan salt and vinegar potato chips crumbled up with a little extra vinegar added) the copper and brass will turn a nice green color as copper acetate forms.

Update: Another year has come and gone, and I had my chemistry students do the same activity this year. The class was larger, and there were some great results, including some interesting origami, as you can see from the photo here. Some were obvious, such as a black tube of paper as a lead pipe. Others were more creative, including a sack of coal for carbon, a particle accelerator for argon, and my personal favorite, Freddie Mercury.

A ChemisTree, complete with Elemental Ornaments.

A ChemisTree, complete with Elemental Ornaments.

Shapes cut from sheets of copper and brass, treated with vinegar and salt (green patina) and ammonia and salt (blue patina).

Shapes cut from sheets of copper and brass, treated with vinegar and salt (green patina) and ammonia and salt (blue patina).

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Finally, after months of waiting and effort, the two videos on the history of the periodic table are complete. Here they are:

The title of this video is:   The Periodic Table Part 1: Before Mendeleev

It’s YouTube links are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQghZkTyqP4 (Part 1-A) and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-SBTYQNAcM (Part 1-B)


The title of this video is: The Periodic Table Part 2: Mendeleev and Beyond

The YouTube links are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9tTcOnoNko (Part 2-A) and: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7msPp2QYrCk (Part 2-B)

They feature interviews with Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA, to which I have added my own narration, animations, illustrations, photos, captions, etc. as well as publication artwork and notes by Edward G. Mazurs (see my previous Periodic Tables posts). I have edited the videos into two parts. Part 1 covers the events leading up to Mendeleev’s invention of the periodic table including the work of several precursors such as de Chancourtois, Newlands, Odling, Hinrichs, and Meyer. The second part covers Mendeleev’s working out of his periodic system and the work of his successors, as well as some interesting questions such as whether the periodic table can be entirely deduced from quantum mechanics and the mystery of the Knight’s Move pattern of properties. Part 1 is 17 minutes long and Part 2 is just under 20 minutes. I am very pleased with the results; I’ve been using every spare minute to complete the editing which is why I haven’t posted here for so long. I hope you feel it is worth the wait. Please let me know what you think!

Knights move image

The Knight's Move Pattern: Zn to Sn

In addition to placing them into this specific post, I will set up a separate page on this blog just for the completed videos. So far I’ve done the rationale video in two parts, now these two on the periodic table, and more will follow as soon as possible. The next will be on the mining and refining of beryllium ore, then on glass blowing, and so on. I have materials (video, photos, etc.) for about 30 episodes already and will get more as student teams begin to complete projects. I will also post these episodes to YouTube but will have to cut each part in two since you can only do ten minutes at a time on YouTube. I also plan on creating a completely separate website just for these videos so that I can place my own metadata on them and upload them to Apple iTunes as podcasts. As these steps are completed, I’ll post information here.

Next week I travel to Philadelphia to present this project at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference. My presentation will be on Saturday, March 20 at 9:30 in Room D-17 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I hope to do a few posts from the conference. Looking through the program, I see several names I recognize among the presenters from my years of facilitating educational workshops for NASA, so it will be fun to see them again. I also hope to work out corporate sponsorship of this project, including funding, so that I can finally begin Phase II to have teams of student in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada start to create their own episodes of the mining and chemical manufacturing in their communities. It will be a very busy week getting ready for the conference. I’ll post again in a few days once all the uploading and links have been created to these videos.

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Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    As I mentioned yesterday, my journey back to Utah from my fellowship in Philadelphia was eventful and too much to write about in a single blog post, so this is about the second phase of my journey. This part mostly revolved around the Periodic Table of the Elements, as I stopped at DePauw University at the Percy Julian Science Center to photograph and videotape an interactive periodic table display created by Max Whitby and Theo Gray, then traveled to Champaign, Illinois to interview Theo himself.

    After visiting the Drake Oil Well on Monday, Aug. 31, I ditched my plans to travel northwest to Lake Erie and Kirtland, Ohio and instead traveled due south on PA 8 through Oil City to I-80, then west to Youngstown and I-76, then west to Akron, Ohio and I-71, then southwest to Columbus (which I skirted around on the belt route), then west on I-70 past Dayton and finally found a cheap motel just east of Indianapolis. The next morning I traveled north around Indianapolis and was going to take I-74 directly to Champaign, but decided to visit the DePauw University installation first (I remembered I had gained an hour passing through the time zone change to Central time). So I exited immediately, zig-zagged through a couple of small towns west of Indianapolis, then caught US 40 heading southwest, then PA 240 into Greencastle, IN. 

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    DePauw University is fairly compact, but considering its size and location in a smallish farming town, it boasts some impressive alumni, including Percy Julian, one of the foremost black chemists of his day. A documentary about him recently aired on PBS, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation helped with the research as they hold his personal papers. DePauw has named their new science center after him, and have installed a wooden interactive periodic table display overlooking the fourth floor atrium. Each element of the table is a cube with a sample of that element (as far as that is possible – obviously, the radioactive elements and the synthetic elements can’t be displayed). A computer is installed in the table with touch controls that allow the selection of an element and information and videos about it to be displayed as well. I photographed the table and used my motorized pan-tilt head to videotape panning across the table, but this was interrupted by a class change and hordes of students tromping past my camera. Once things had calmed down again, I finished the pan, packed up, and drove up to I-74 and on to Champaigne, IL. 

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

    I had set up an interview with Theo Gray, who is the co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc. – the company that makes Mathematica software, which I have greatly desired to have a copy of ever since I saw it demonstrated at teacher conferences back when I taught science and math classes. He got into collecting elements accidentally. He’s always been interested in chemistry, and even started out majoring in it in college before he got into computer programming. When his company reshuffled their office space to make room for a conference area, he realized they would need a conference table and thought it would be fun to make a literal periodic table of the elements. As he was building it (he is an excellent carpenter as well), he realized that using different types of wood to represent the families of elements would be a problem in Illinois’ humid climate; different woods would expand at different rates and cause the table to crack. So he left the tiles of each element unattached. Then he got the idea – since the tiles can be removed, he should make a sample area under each one to contain a sample of the element. Then he had to go out and collect the samples.

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

    Well, years later he is now an expert at collecting the elements and writes a column about it in Popular Science magazine called Gray Matters, and has developed a series of outrageous chemical demonstrations (such as heating his hot tub with quicklime) that have been videotaped. He has created photographic periodic table charts, a book, etc. In addition to his table, he has displays in his office of some of the more interesting objects that contain various elements in them and that use properties of those elements.

 

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

    Theo was very gracious in letting me, an amateur, invade his office for a couple of hours in the middle of a busy work day. After finishing the interview, I traveled south from Champaign and picked up I-70 again, then traveled west and crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis (right at sunset again), then headed south for about an hour to the old lead belt and camped at St. Francois State Park. Although I had used the interstates for most of the day, I got off them enough in Indiana to get a feel for the countryside. From here on, I would be staying mostly on the back roads.

 

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

 

Different woods used to represent families of elements

Different woods used to represent families of elements

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