- Dr. Mae Jemison
- James Andrew Harris
- Dr. Warren M. Washington
Celebrate black history month in your chemistry class this February by teaching your students about the trailblazing African American scientists below.
1. Black History Month Scientists Spotlight: Dr. Mae Jemison and Bottle Rockets
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American female astronaut to travel to space. She was the science mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
A fun way to introduce students to Dr. Jemison is by having them create rockets of their own! In this black history month activity students learn about Dr. Jemison, while also using the reaction between an acid and a base to make a bottle launch.
To start this lesson, discuss Dr. Jemison’s impressive set of achievements, she is a chemical engineer, doctor and conducted numerous science experiments on board the Endeavor.
You can show the mini biography on Dr. Jemison below to discuss with your students. If time allows, show footage of Dr. Jemison’s 1992 launch.
Chemistry is very important for getting astronauts to space! While your class won’t be able to send rockets to space just yet, they can practice the principles behind what it takes to overcome the force of gravity. Rocket scientists use different chemical reactions to get enough thrust to achieve this, your class can achieve lift off with the use of a few commonly available ingredients. Not only is this lesson fun, this is a great lesson to tie into your acids and bases unit, your chemical reactions unit, or to discuss Newton’s Laws. Consider spreading the lesson across 2-3 days if you have the time.
You will need for the Bottle Rocket Lab:
- Empty plastic bottle
- Baking soda
- A cork (big enough to fit plastic bottle)
- Wooden stick or pencils
- Paper towel (optional)
*Make sure that you have access to a wide enough outdoor space before trying this experiment.
Procedure for this Chemistry Black History Month Activity:
Demonstrate for students how to create a bottle rocket. To save time, have the launchpad for the rocket already created by taping 3 wooden sticks or pencils to the outside of the plastic bottle, on the bottle cap end so that when placed on the ground the bottle cap end is pointing down and the bottom points upward.
Pour between ¾ cup to 1 cup of vinegar and then using the funnel pour about a tablespoon of baking soda. Slow down the reaction by putting the baking soda in a paper towel. Cork the bottle and set it bottle cap down on the ground so that it’s on the launching pad. If you added the baking soda to a paper towel, you may need to shake the bottle to kick start the reaction. Stand back with your class as you watch your rocket soar!
In small groups provide your students with time to create their own rockets. Make this a true experiment by asking students which substance they think will contribute most to launch height, the vinegar or the baking soda. Students can investigate different set quantities of vinegar and baking soda to determine which has the greater effect and who can get their rocket to have the highest launch. Have students record their data in a notebook.
To sum up, go over the science behind this chemical interaction. You can use models to show students how acids such as vinegar want to get rid of their positively charged hydrogen atom (a proton) and that bases such as baking soda want to get that proton!
2. Black History Month Scientists Spotlight: Hunting Unknown Elements with James Andrew Harris
Did you know that nuclear chemist James Andrew Harris played a key role in the discovery of the elements rutherfordium (104) and dubnium (105)? Harris was the first African American to be credited with contributing to the discovery of new elements. He was responsible for the difficult task of preparing and purifying the atomic target materials that would be bombarded with carbon, nitrogen, and other atoms.
While discovering new elements is much harder to do nowadays, you can introduce your chemistry class to James Andrew Harris and have them go on an Unknown Element Hunt. First, share an image and some facts about James Andrew Harris and his discoveries. Then, pretend that your lab has been tasked with identifying some unknown elements. Working together in small groups, students identify the unknown elements from element cards that you have prepared for them.
Create Unknown Element cards using elements that your students are likely to have had exposure to such as oxygen, iron, silver, sodium, carbon, calcium, helium, chlorine etc. On one side of the Unknown Element card use an image that is representative of the element. For example, if carbon is used as one of the elements you can have an image of a diamond and/or graphite. On the reverse side of the image, include some facts about the element that students have “discovered”. Using carbon as the example, some sample facts you can write:
- As you test this element you realize it easily combines with many other elements
- When you ask where this element was found, you find out that it is common in coal mines and in soot
- This element appears transparent and hard when it appears as a diamond and opaque, black, and soft when it appears as graphite
- The element is very brittle and cannot be rolled into wires or pounded into sheets
- You look at the element under a microscope. You discover that it has 6 protons
If you have access to the internet, you can also have students look up information using a kid safe search engine like kidrex. Use the element’s properties to help describe it for students. Help students connect that chemists such as James Andrew Harris try to identify the properties of different elements. Although the properties of rutherfordium and dubnium are really hard to test because they are highly unstable on earth, scientists study the properties of different elements to help them learn more about it and how it can be used.
If you do not have time to make Unknown Element Cards or if you’re looking for a quick connection, try the variation of this activity. After introducing students to James Andrew Harris, you can play Unknown Element 21 Questions and have students ask you questions about an unknown element that you have chosen.
3. Black History Month Scientists Spotlight: Dr. Warren M. Washington and a Cloud in a Jar
Warren M. Washington is another exemplary African American scientist that you should introduce your chemistry students to this Black History Month. He is internationally recognized for his work on climate change and atmospheric science. He has won numerous awards recognizing his work and has had preeminent positions on various climate and atmospheric science institutions. Teach your students about Dr. Washington and stoke their interest in atmospheric science by having students create a cloud in a jar. Perhaps, one of them will one day become atmospheric experts just like Dr. Washington!
You will need to make a Cloud in a Jar:
- Jar with lid
- About 1/3 cup hot water
Arrange your class into small groups. Pour hot water into each group’s jar. Make the sides of the jar warm by swirling the water around. Be sure to instruct students to follow safety procedures when around hot water.
After you have poured the hot water for each group, have a student from each group carefully put the lid of the jar on top of the jar but so that it is upside down. Have another student place some ice cubes on top of the lid. Have the class wait 20 seconds.
After 20 seconds circulate to each group quickly removing the lid and spraying a little bit of hairspray in each group’s jar. Students should quickly put the lid with ice on top back on their jar. Ask students to observe their jar and wait for the cloud to form.
After there is a fair amount of condensation, ask students to remove the lids and have them observe as the cloud leaves the jar.
After this activity, discuss how clouds form with your class. Possible topics to cover are water vapor, condensation and how clouds form when water vapor attaches itself to particles that naturally occur in the air such as dust, soil, smoke, and sea salt (in our case the hairspray). You can connect back to Warren M. Washington by sharing that among many things, atmospheric scientists study things like clouds and their effects on the environment to learn more about Earth’s climate.
This is a very short list of some ways that you can bring Black History Month science activities to enrich your classroom. There are many more renowned African American scientists that you can teach your students about. As you introduce each scientist, try to connect either the scientist’s work or their field with an activity or experiment that will inspire your students to learn more about the individual and topic!
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