For Kids

Super Fun Science Experiments for a Healthy Planet

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Science experiments are a wonderful way to learn about the environment. They teach us important lessons about sustainability and how to be eco-friendly. The best part is that you don’t even need a science lab or any special equipment to do fun experiments at home. Here are some environmental science experiments that use supplies you already have at home. 

Oil spill cleanup

What is the best way to clean up an oil spill in the ocean? What impact does an oil spill have on plants and animals? Learn more by trying to clean up your own “oil spill” with this easy, hands-on activity.

This easy science experiment uses dish soap to show the process of “emulsification.” This is when two liquids that normally separate mix together. The purpose of this experiment is to show why you need an emulsifying agent to remove oil from a bird’s feathers (or our oceans). 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Water
  • An empty plastic bottle
  • Cooking oil
  • Natural food coloring
  • Dish soap

Here’s what you’ll do (and learn):

Fill your plastic bottle about halfway with water. Next, add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil and watch what happens to the water. What do you notice?

Water is denser than oil, which causes the two liquids to separate and the oil to rise to the top. Now, add a few drops of natural food coloring and watch what happens. Take notes on your observations. 

Now, add 2 tablespoons of dish soap. This will act as an emulsifier by breaking down the oil and allowing it to mix with the water. Do you see how the food coloring tints the water to be the same color? What do you notice about the oil this time?

That’s right! The oil no longer rises to the top. This means that the dish soap did its job as an emulsifying agent, allowing the water and oil to mix together. When this happens, the oil is broken up into smaller droplets, making it easier to move. 

When an oil spill occurs in the ocean, response teams use a similar approach for cleaning it up. Oftentimes, a small boat or plane is used to release chemical dispersants into the water that act as emulsifying agents. Much like the dish soap in this experiment, these chemicals break down the oil into smaller and less harmful compounds. Micro-organisms in the water then eat them and break them down into even less harmful compounds. 

Dirty air

Look around you. Do you “see” the air surrounding you? No, right? We don’t typically see “air,” so it’s easy to assume that our air is clean. But is it? In this experiment, we’ll find out just what is in the air we breathe.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A piece of white or clear plastic (salad plate size)
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Duct tape
  • A wood block or brick
  • Blank white paper 

Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Coat the top of the piece of plastic with petroleum jelly.
  2. Secure the plastic to a wood block, brick or other weighted object using duct tape.
  3. Identify an outdoor location that is mostly open with decent air circulation (on a fence is preferable to on the ground).
  4. Let the plastic/block sit for at least 24 hours (weather permitting).
  5. At the end of your experiment time, bring the plastic/block inside. (If you used a clear piece of plastic, place it on a white piece of paper or light-colored surface.)
  6. Examine the top of the plastic for any particles collected. Make a list of these particles.
  7. OPTIONAL: Create two air-pollution sensors and place one of them indoors in a common area with normal air circulation. Then compare the pollution collected by each.

As you can see, air may be “invisible” but it’s not empty. Even the air we breathe inside contains particles that can harm us. Can you think of any ways to cut down the pollution inside your home?

Don’t Go Away Rain Gauge

Dream of being a meteorologist when you grow up? Now’s your chance to practice! (Even if you have different career aspirations, this is still fun!)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2-liter plastic bottle
  • Scissors
  • Duct tape
  • Sand
  • Sharpie marker
  • Ruler

Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Empty and wash out the 2-liter bottle.
  2. With the scissors, cut off the spout top right where the taper or curve begins (this might be best done by an adult).
  3. Fill the bottom of the bottle with 1/2 inch of sand. This will keep the bottle from falling over on windy days.
  4. Pour in just enough water so you can see the water level above the sand. Yes, your sand will be wet! This is called the “saturation point.”
  5. Use a marker to draw a line at the saturation point above the sand. Next to the line, write “starting point.”
  6. Line the ruler up (from the starting/saturation point) and draw a line for every inch up to the top of the bottle.
  7. Take the top “cut off” spout portion of the bottle and flip it upside down. Insert it into the bottle and use some duct tape to secure it. This will help catch and collect the rainfall by funneling it into the bottle.
  8. Now it’s time to find an open, unobstructed area outside to place your rain gauge.
  9. Every time it rains, record your rain data!

Now you can accurately measure how much rain has fallen after every shower! 

Greenhouse effect

Seems like everyone’s talking about global warming these days, but do you understand how it works? A great way to grasp its principles is to think about what the sun does to the inside of a car parked in the sun:

  • Sunshine (solar energy) passes easily through the glass to heat the car’s interior. 
  • The car’s interior absorbs the short-wave energy and heats up. The heated seats then release long-wave infrared radiation. 
  • The glass in the car’s windows now begins to act as a kind of one-way mirror. Short-wave solar energy (sunlight) continues to enter unhindered, but much of the long-wave infrared radiation is blocked and prevented from leaving. 

On a much larger scale, the same thing is happening to the earth: 

  • Energy from the sun hits the earth’s atmosphere as solar radiation. Some of it is bounced back into space by the atmosphere, but most passes through the atmosphere to warm the surface of the earth. 
  • Once the earth has been warmed by the short-wave solar energy, excess heat is radiated back into the environment as long-wave infrared radiation. 
  • However, some of the gases in the earth’s atmosphere act like the glass in the car. They let in solar energy and block or absorb infrared energy. As a result, the atmosphere gets warmer. 

What does pollution have to do with it? In all, 30 greenhouse gases have been discovered to date, including carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor, methane and ozone. But lately, new gases are being added to the mix: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These are the harmful gases produced by cars and factories, and humans are responsible! 

Need to see it in action to really get it? No problem. Here’s a simple greenhouse experiment you can try at home.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A deep, open bowl
  • Dark cloth or paper
  • Paper cup
  • Mercury thermometer
  • Clear plastic wrap

Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Line the bowl with the dark cloth or paper. 
  2. Place the bowl in the sun and place an inverted paper cup inside it. Lay a mercury thermometer across the top of the cup to measure the air temperature inside the bowl. 
  3. Wait 2 minutes.
  4. Note the temperature. 
  5. Now, replace the thermometer in the bowl and cover the opening with a sheet of clear plastic wrap. 
  6. Wait 1 minute.
  7. Note the new temperature reading. The increase in air temperature is due to the trapped heat.

Congratulations! You just created “global” warming in a bowl!  

NOTE: Be careful, it can get rather hot. Keep a close eye on the temperature reading so the thermometer doesn’t pop its top.