Our Year with Otter's Chemistry Curriculum

Wanna see what science looks like in our house? The pictures below showcase some of the great things we did while learning all about chemistry using Otter's Chemistry! They are things you can easily accomplish as well! Just download Otter's Chemistry schedule and HAVE FUN!

Experimenting with Otter's Chemistry!

Learning about acids and bases:

Acids and bases


Acids and bases


Here's an allotrope Otter built (and then ate!):

allotrope out of gumdrops

A chromatography experiment:


Epsom crystals:

Epsom crystals

Building a molecule out of print & cut cards:

Chemistry cards

Learning about density:


Mixtures printable:


An experiment with air:
We put the bottle into the fridge for awhile, took it out, put the balloon on top and watched it magically inflate!

Air experiment

Chemistry and art mixed! Make dots of color on a shirt with permanent markers, drop alcohol on them and watch the dots turn into beautiful tie-dye style patterns:

Color shirt


Otter is playing with a Dune Craft Astounding Polymer Properties Observation Kit. Oh wait, is it playing or doing school? We tend to confuse that sometimes...


Playing with polymers

A polymer ball ("slippery spheres"):

Polymer ball

More polymer spheres - These started out as teeny hard little balls and grew more than 20x to the size of a marble after adding water:

polymer balls

"Silly squares":


Besides having a lot of fun, you get to learn about crosslinking, hydration, molecular bonding, polarity, viscosity and absorption.

I like to have a few science kits on hand at any given time. They are great for adding some fun into a week and keeping school from feeling "stale". They also give Otter the opportunity for some free science exploration with plenty of practice in reading instructions as well as making and testing hypotheses.

Solid, Liquid or Gas?

Chemistry is a highlight of our day and Otter is loving it.

Here is a pic of one of the recent experiments Otter did:

Solid, liquid or gas?

You can download the free printable for this experiment from here. There are more science freebies at ACS Chemistry for Life. If you click on "Science for Kids" there are free lesson plans, some online activities, art ideas and more. I'm scheduling in some of the activities into our chemistry schedule.


Chemistry Notebook

Otter is keeping a chemistry notebook. Inside he's keeping track of some of the experiments we've done using this lab report. He's also doing some notebooking pages, lapbook elements glued onto colored paper and other printables. When he's done with chemistry, he'll have a nice notebook to browse through and remember the various projects he completed. Here's the cover I made to slip into the front:

Chemistry notebook

Here are some of the assignments he's already entered into it:

This was a project from Christian Kids Explore Chemistry. Otter took a look at the ingredients of various items and wrote them down to see how "chemistry is in our home". He noticed how some of the items had the same chemicals.


In the 2nd week of our study, he learned about chemistry tools, safety and measurement. I made him this lab sheet to record the data from a hands-on activity from C.K.E.C. . Otter learned that when you pour liquid from one container to another, eventually it affects the measurement. He also learned how to measure from the meniscus of the liquid.

Chemistry worksheet

Here's a cut & paste vocabulary activity I downloaded from middleschoolscience.com.


He also made these lapbook booklets about the scientific method and pasted them onto colored paper:

chemistry lapbook

Here's another cut & paste activity that helped define solids, liquids and gas:

solid, liquid, gas

I'm also making use of BrainPop, one of our favorite online activities. I found this printable to go with the movie about solids, liquids and gases.


He also did some fun lab safety papers with a Sponge Bob theme. You can find the teacher's notes here.

Sponge Bob science

Here's an activity he did examining various compounds and mixtures:

chemistry worksheet



Otter is really enjoying chemistry. Yesterday we read about plasma globes and did some experiments. Here are the pics. Warning: I'm not recommending you do what we did! These experiments could be dangerous and we were referencing websites and videos such as this one. In other words, don't try this at home.

Otter got a fluorescent light bulb to light up, just by holding it near the plasma globe:

Plasma globe and light bulb

When he put a penny on top and then touched the penny with a nail, he saw a small arc of electricity:

plasma globe

Super close up of the above:

plasma ball

Otter also got an LED light from his Snap Circuits kit to light up just by touching it to the plasma globe:

plasma globe and led

We also recently split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Dad put a lit match to the hydrogen we collected and we all got to hear a POP!

Another experiment Otter did was to figure out how to separate salt from sand:


Other recent things we've done in chemistry:

  • Learned about hydrogen
  • Distilled salt water
  • Watched an acid reaction
  • Put up a periodic table poster
  • Learned about lab safety with Sponge Bob
  • Learned about controls and variables
  • Went on an elements scavenger hunt
  • Learned about Antoine Lavoisier

I think Otter is in science heaven lately. Chemistry is full of fun experiments and explorations.


Copper Plating Experiment

Yesterday in chemistry we copper plated an iron nail. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the nail has taken on a copper color.

Copper plate a nail experiment

Want to try it yourself? You'll need:

  • The juice from 2 lemons or 1/2 cup of vinegar (We used lemon juice.)
  • Plastic cup or ceramic bowl (We used a disposable cup.)
  • 10 to 20 dull pennies (We used about 20.)
  • A pinch or couple shakes of salt
  • An iron nail (ungalvanized)
  1. Put the lemon juice into the cup.
  2. Place your pennies in the bottom of the cup, inside the juice.
  3. Add the salt.
  4. Place the nail inside the cup and leave it for at least 30 minutes. We left our nail in overnight. When you take it out it should be coated with enough copper for you to notice!

Why does it do that? The lemon juice dissolves the copper on the pennies and this produces copper ions. An ion is an atom that either has extra electrons or is missing some electrons.
The copper ions are attracted to the iron in the nail and build up, until there is a visible coat of copper on the nail.

Here's a close-up of the nail, which is now, roughly, the color of a penny, when before it was almost completely gray:

Copper coated iron nail

Here's what the experiment did to the pennies, especially the newer pennies!!

Corroded penny

We also learned that pennies after 1982 are actually zinc that is coated with copper. We could really see this when we took some of the newer pennies out and observed the partially-dissolved, thin copper coating over a darker metal underneath. Copper is so expensive now that it would cost MORE than a penny for each penny to be pure (actually 95%) copper!

Click here for a printable of this experiment.


The Elements Chemistry Curriculum Review

Otter has really been enjoying our chemistry study. It is, in fact, the highlight of the day for BOTH of us. I have learned so much right along with him. I'm actually using several different chemistry programs, but our favorite by far is The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe, written by Ellen McHenry.

I've always been a fan of Ellen's freebies. Through them we've learned about a myriad of topics like geography, oceanography, history and the human body. Ellen has a talent for conveying information in an easy-to-understand, often visual or hands-on way. Explore her website and you'll find all kinds of great printables like games, crafts, models and more.

The Elements Chemistry CurriculumWhen I read some buzz about The Elements, I decided to check it out. We'd just finished studying astronomy and were both ready for something new. Next up on our science topics list: chemistry. I wanted something fun, flexible, inexpensive, with some hands-on elements and EXPERIMENTS! - Otter's emphasis wink. I also wanted a curriculum that is fairly in-depth and goes beyond a surfacy knowledge of atoms with experiments and activities that help you understand the "whys" of chemistry.

Emily just finished taking chemistry in college, and while her year of high school chemistry helped to give her at least a passing knowledge of some of the basics, I felt she could have been better prepared. She didn't love chemistry; she endured it. Some of that is her personality, but some it is also, I believe, a result of a "boring" high school textbook that didn't cater to her learning style (she is very visual and hands-on). I do want to add a quick note that I supplemented her text with a program called Friendly Chemistry and THAT is what she remembers a little more "fondly" and actually retained information from. Our main textbook though, was a bust.
I wish I had given her a deeper foundation for high school with a more in depth (and fun) study of chemistry in elementary school. We covered the basics and did a few flashy experiments, but she never did things like memorize portions of the Periodic Table - a task she had to do in her college class. I think she would have appreciated having one less thing to study, if she had learned it earlier.
Because of my experience(s) with her, I thought Otter would be better served by a program that left him loving chemistry and wanting more. I want him to realize, at a young age, that chemistry is interesting. More than that, that chemistry is AWESOME. After checking out the sample first chapter of The Elements, I knew we had a winner.

I ordered a hard copy from Rainbow Resource for 28.50, but you can also order it from Ellen's website on a CD for a little less. The open-and-go hard copy version of the curriculum comes with a 3 ring binder with removable pages as well as a CD in the back with songs and a PDF of the entire program so you can easily print out the games and activity pages without having to run to the copier or pull out your scanner. There are 147 total pages. The first 61 pages are the student text with lots of hand-draw pictures as well as some color photos, activities, website links, comics, puzzles and more. Some of the pages are designed to write on. The last half of the pages are the teacher's section with reproducible patterns for games, even more activities, experiments, skits, etc.

The curriculum doesn't come with a schedule, but the website states that it could take as little as 6 weeks or as long as 12. Because I mixed it in with lots of other books and activities, I've scheduled it for 14 weeks (I'll share the schedule in the future for free, here on my website).

According to Ellen's website, The Elements was written for a target audience of 8-13 year olds, but contains topics covered in beginning high school level texts. I've read about parents using it successfully with all ages, even as young as 5 or 6. I'm learning plenty myself, as an adult! Here are some of the items covered:

  • The definition of an element
  • Molecules
  • The history of the periodic table and how it works
  • The structure of atoms
  • Electrons (clouds, orbitals, shells, etc.)
  • Valence number of atoms
  • Drawing Lewis dot diagrams
  • Atomic bonding (covalent, ionic and metallic)
  • Alkali and halogen "families"
  • Noble gases and non-metals
  • Semi-, pure and transitional metals
  • Lanthanides and actinides

There's a lot of meat covered, but we are finding all of it is so easy to understand. Here's a short paragraph from chapter 4 in which electrons are personified:

"The most important thing to know about outer shells is that the electrons in it take rule #4 very seriously. They are almost neurotic about it. They live by the motto: "8 is great." If there is only one electron in the outer shell, that electron is so miserable that it would rather go off and join another atom than be alone in the outer shell of its own atom. If an outer shell has seven electrons and is only one short of perfection, those seven will try anything to get an eighth electron in the shell. They will even try to steal an electron from the outer shell of any atom that comes close enough."

When discussing an atom with only one electron in its outer shell, another part of the text later states:

"An atom like this can really be obnoxious. It is so desperate to get rid of that one extra electron that it will throw it at any atom that is nearby. (Chemists say "very reactive" instead of "obnoxious".)

Explanations like these make what we are learning so much easier. I find it easier to relate to a story first and then the more technical aspects later. Ellen makes sure to set up understanding on scaffolds of analogies. The analogies help make things stick. We also enjoy other whimsical touches like the cartoon illustrations that help make learning fun like the picture that shows salt water at an atomic level and has the caption "They're in water cages!" It's memorable and meaningful. It's also accessible to those of us who are not science experts!

When I look at a review of a curriculum, I always want to know what it's like to actually use it. Here's a little slice of the schedule I created for the first week of using The Elements. The top row shows the pages where we read the "lesson". The bottom row shows the activities. We're taking the program at a pretty slow pace since I've added in lots of extra literature and activities.

Chemistry schedule

In a typical week we read several pages and do at least a couple of "fun things". The activities and experiments have clear instructions and there are lots of game and other kinds of templates to use. Here's a picture of one of the activities Otter made to learn the elements:


In the text, the elements are referred to as the ingredients of the universe. We made these symbol jars of all the different ingredients. On the front of each jar is the symbol of an element and on the back is it's name. The template was in the teacher's section of the notebook.

Another activity called "Make Five" helped us learn the chemical formulas for some common minerals. This activity also helped Otter understand the concept of molecules and get even more practice in for learning the element symbols. You can download a free copy of the game here.


Otter is retaining a great deal of what we're learning. He's also looking at the world around us in a new light. The other day, when he was holding onto a helium balloon, he suddenly exclaimed, "Hey Mom!" I know why helium is lighter than air! If you look at the periodic table, you can see that oxygen has 8 protons and helium has only two! So oxygen has a higher atomic mass. Just like argon has an even bigger atomic mass. See it has 18. So it's going to weigh even more. So a balloon with argon in it would fall down instead of go up. At least that's my guess!" He was so excited to make this connection. We went online and confirmed his thoughts with a video: Noble Gases.

We're in our 9th week of using the program and I consider it a terrific purchase. It doesn't take up a ton of time, doesn't require lots of expensive materials (most experiments require easy to find things around the house), has lots of different activities, is interesting, easy to supplement (if desired) and just plain fun (at least for us). If you're looking for an engaging science program that delivers ideas and activities for all different learning styles, you might want to check out and consider The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe. We plan to follow it up with Ellen's other wonderful chemistry program Carbon Chemistry for the 2nd half of the year. I'll post a write-up of it pretty soon!

*Note: All our reviews reflect only our personal opinion(s) of materials. We aren't experts! We're just a homeschooling family with 3 kids and ideas of our own about what works and what doesn't for US. smile

Ellen McHenry's Carbon Chemistry Program Review

Carbon ChemistryWe recently finished the wonderfully engaging science program: The Elements by Ellen McHenry. You can read my review of that science curriculum here. Now we are moving on to the 2nd half of a 31 week chemistry schedule I created in which Ellen's 2nd chemistry curriculum Carbon Chemistry plays the biggest part.

Carbon Chemistry is intended to follow The Elements and was designed for grades 6-9 although Ellen states, "...it could also be adapted for use with either gifted
upper elementary or with high school. The level of science is highly suitable for high school; it is only the manner in which it is presented that is geared to junior high. It is within reach of very motivated elementary students if the teacher is actively involved with the students and can discuss the concepts that are presented in the student text." Otter is just starting 6th grade and while the material is perfect for him, I can see that I personally am going to learn a lot from it as well. Ellen has a gift for taking complicated subjects and not only making them understandable, but fun.

We're excited to start using it! We had such a great time with The Elements and learned so much. Otter can't wait to expand his chemistry knowledge and start digging deeper now that he has a good grasp on the basics.

We have the CD version which comes with 2 CD's. The first CD has a 176 page PDF. The first half of the PDF is an 83 page reproducible student booklet. The rest of it contains a detailed answer key and a teacher's section chock-full of experiments, games, printables, online video suggestions and more - as well as instructions for a "polymer party" to wrap up your study. There are eleven chapters that cover a variety of topics. Here are some of them:

  • Carbon and allotropes of pure carbon (diamonds, graphite, etc.)
  • Alkane hydrocarbons
  • "enes" and "ynes"
  • Alcohols, carboxylic acids, ketones, esters, ethers
  • Sodium benzoate, nitroglycerin, soap, prostaglandins, pheromones
  • Plastics
  • Rubber and silicones
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Proteins
  • The carbon cycle

As with all of Ellen's materials, there are easy to understand explanations and a variety of memorable activities. Some of the activities include:

  • Make marbled paper using alkanes
  • Play the functional group game (complete with printables)
  • An experiment with acetic acid
  • Taste test some esters
  • Enjoy some benzaldehyde (a recipe)
  • Charles Goodyear skit
  • Make slime
  • Sing the DNA song
  • Make glue using a milk protein

There are tons more though!

The PDF also contains comprehension self-checks at the end of each chapter. These checks help to make sure your student is understanding the material with fill-in-the-blank sentences, questions and online research questions are also available to further each topic. Amusing and helpful black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the text and little cartoon thumbprint people add in some kid-friendly appeal. There are puzzles, worksheet type activities and review pages included with activities like: draw the bonds between the letters, figure out the code, match the words with the diagram, etc.

I love the mix of information and the presentation. Sometimes concepts are presented in a visual way via drawings and diagrams. In other sections there are interesting and memorable stories, like one about "saving the lac bugs (how the world's first plastic was created) as well as another that tells about Percy Julian, a black man and chemist born around 1900 - emphasizing not only his scientific accomplishments, but also his excellent character. There is also some history thrown in like how in World War II, Japan blocked the Allied countries from receiving shipments of latex rubber and the resulting discovery and other tidbits about accidental chemical discoveries- who made them and when.

If you are looking for a science program that breaks out of the boring textbook mold, incorporates a hands-on element and caters to all the different styles of learning, I highly recommend you take a look at both The Elements and Carbon Chemistry. By using these two programs and supplementing with a variety of "living books" we've had one of our most memorable science years ever. Now I just wish Ellen would write more!!

As I go through the program, I'll be posting pictures of some of our projects and experiments. Take a peek here on my blog to see what we are up to!

Official site for Carbon Chemistry
Download the first chapter by clicking here.
Download one of the games (organic molecules card game) for free.

*Note: All our reviews reflect only our personal opinion(s) of materials. We aren't experts! We're just a homeschooling family with 3 kids and ideas of our own about what works and what doesn't for US.





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