Household Chemistry: Simplifying Science Education

Household Chemistry: Simplifying Science Education
Professor Jodye Selco teaches a class in Uganda.
Selco shared her ideas with several schools in Africa.

Chemistry class without Bunsen burners, test tubes or graduated cylinders? No problem.

Science Education Professor Jodye Selco has been developing creative, hands-on chemistry lessons using materials that can be found around the house, in the supermarket or even on the ground. At Cal Poly Pomona, Selco works for the Center for Education & Equity in Mathematics, Science and Technology (CEEMaST), helping to improve science education from pre-kindergarten to graduate school.

Most recently, she has been working with fourth- through eighth-grade teachers in Rialto Unified School District to improve science education in the district and studying the results.

“Preliminary data indicates that the hands-on science lessons positively affect students' performance,” Selco says. “Without experimentation, students don't seem to make connections between the real life around them and the chemistry that they are learning academically.”

Selco's imaginative lesson plans also demonstrate that teaching science doesn't have to be complicated or expensive.

In one experiment she designed to demonstrate chemical reactions, the materials list calls for zip top plastic bags, flour, corn starch, baking soda, Epsom salt, vinegar, water, lemon juice and red cabbage. When students mix some of the powders and liquids together in the bag, they can watch the reactions — the mixtures can bubble, fizz, change colors, or turn hot or cold.

The total cost? About $15 for an entire class. Traditionally that same experiment would use pure grade chemicals and sophisticated glassware, such as beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks, easily costing more than $200.

Last year, Selco shared some of her ideas with schools in Africa. Most schools, even the wealthy ones, she says, can't afford to purchase sophisticated laboratory equipment for students to use on a day-to-day basis. As a result, science classes rely on books and lectures, and students miss out on the hands-on learning experience.

Instead of using expensive glass beakers to boil water, Selco suggested teachers use metal cans. If litmus paper isn't available, flower petals can be used to detect pH levels of acids and bases. No 100 gram brass weights? Use calibrated clay pieces instead.

During her trip in the fall of 2007, Selco visited 15 schools, from the elementary to university level, in Kenya, Zambia and Uganda.

Selco recently submitted a paper to the Journal of Chemical Education that discusses the lessons developed with teachers in Rialto Unified. For more information about CEEMaST, visit To see some of the lesson plans, visit