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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

T-shirt chromatography


The year is going to come to a close pretty soon for many. For those in the Midwest or east the year may be extended due to snow days. For those who will be in school longer you may need a science activity that really generates some interest and has a project feel to it.  There are a lot of ideas out there. I tend to like those that give the kids a product to take home or discrepant events that get kids thinking and lead to some home experiments.

The University of Wisconsin has some great ideas.

The “gluep” and cabbage experiment are particularly good at this time of year.  The layered liquids lead to a good class challenge. I give the students a quantity of salt (1 cup) water and a box of food color. The challenge is to use the concept of density of liquids to create the highest number of distinct layers of liquid in their test tube. I like this better than the oil/water/glycerin layering activity because salt is cheap and this lab cleans up in a snap.

This Wisconsin site also is a great place to start if you are thinking of asking your older students to present science lessons to younger students. This idea will be fleshed out in a later blog. You may want to keep that idea in the back of your mind.

One of my all time favorite activities is T-shirt chromatography. We study chromatography by separating the colors in black markers when we talk about elements, mixtures and compounds. Most inks are mixtures of different colors. The basic experiment can be found at any one of several sites. Crayola has the best for elementary:

For middle levels I like the experiment at the Middle School Science site:

The best background is at the Exploratorium:

We take that same idea and apply it to t-shirts. Dr. Ron Bonsetter at the University of Nebraska told me to check with hospitals for free lab coats. I did several years ago and the local hospital throws away hundreds of lab smocks and lab coats every year when they are stained. They are cleaned and safe but not stain free. That makes them perfect for t-shirt chromatography. We use the lab coats instead of T-shirts and do the activity at the beginning of the year to create coats to wear to protect clothing in the labs. I should get back to t-shirts. We use old or new white cotton t-shirts with or without designs. Lots of kids use a t-shirt that otherwise might not be wearable because of a stain. The chromatography can mask a stain. I try to pick up some really cheap shirts from goodwill or any thrift store and often local stores will donate a box of t’s for my kids.

The society of Women Engineers has the best instruction set and background for this activity.

Next week I will tackle Earth Day activities. These recycled t-shirts are great as the uniform of the day for whatever outdoor or indoor activities you use to celebrate.

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