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K-12 Education


Kid chemistry revisited: Electroplating and simulated germs

by Craig Bettenhausen
January 31, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 4


More kid-friendly home science

Three kids in goggles and gloves stand in a cluttered workshop near a table set with beakers, bottles, and wires.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Safety first: Even with mild household reagents, DIY kids' labs are an opportunity to learn about safety as well as science.

In December, Newscripts wrote about next-level experiments that science-minded caregivers could do to supplement kids’ virtual classrooms. It was a lot of fun, and many readers wrote in with suggestions. So we decided to revisit the subject with two new activities and more expert advice.

We couldn’t resist the allure of at-home electroplating. An internet search for “DIY nickel electroplating” should provide all the details needed to get started. Nickel is a great choice for electroplating because it requires just vinegar, salt, a cheap variable DC charger, and a few simple parts, all available from common online retailers.

For our setup, we swapped out the end of the charger’s cable for two alligator clips and attached those to two electrodes made from bars of pure nickel, which we hung on either end of a 250 mL beaker filled with household vinegar. About 10 g of salt helped the solution conduct electricity. We turned on the power at 12 V and left it for about 2 h to charge the solution with green nickel acetate.

Then we swapped out the electrode that bubbled, which is the cathode, for a brass plumbing elbow we had cleaned and degreased with ammonia. In about 30 min, with the voltage down at around 3.5 V—a lower driving force leads to a more uniform coating—the part was coated in a tough, shiny layer of metallic nickel.

This experiment provided many opportunities to talk about science. Hydrogen bubbles streaming off electrodes led to a discussion of water splitting; a corroded anode along with new metal appearing on the cathodes spurred a conversation about electron flow, ionizations, and other redox chemistry; and color changes showed the kids one way color arises from chemistry. And at the end, we had an artifact: a brass part now colored a shiny silver, which our junior scientists ran off with to explain to anyone who would listen.

Jeanita Pritchett (see page 26), the founder of STEAM Forward! Academy—a company that puts on science workshops and courses for school-age kids—recommends that caregivers at home look for experiments and demonstrations that bring out the science behind everyday objects. “When kids see it and think it’s relatable, they’re going to start looking for the scientific aspects that exist all around them,” she tells Newscripts.

Pritchett suggests that caregivers carefully vet their sources for procedures, safety, and explanations. She says to look for a large number of followers on social media, a long history with science education, and the backing of reputable publishers or scientific organizations. When sources contradict each other in a particular area, that’s a place to devote extra time to research and analysis.

Three kids examine their hands, which are glowing brightly under a blacklight.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Smear: UV-dyed lotion makes an impactful lesson about how unwashed hands spread germs.

For our second experiment, we used a hand lotion spiked with Glo Germ fluorescent dye to simulate the spread of germs. We grabbed the kids while they played indoors, had each of them apply an earbud-sized dollop of lotion to their hands, and released them.

After 5 min, we turned off the lights and turned on an LED blacklight. Gasps and shrieks of “ewwww!” filled the room. Splotches of bluish glow were on the light switch, the couch, the dolls, the carpet, and their faces, with plenty still on each hand.

Next, the kids washed their hands. Then we switched the blacklight on again to find hands still glowing green, especially between their fingers and around their fingernails. And then we asked a timely question: “What if that was coronavirus instead of glowing green dye? Want to wash your hands again?”

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