Plants are wonderful chemical reorganizers. Using the sun’s energy and a process called photosynthesis, they can turn water and carbon dioxide into sugar (glucose) and oxygen.
Thanks to plants and other autotrophs like algae, Earth has an oxygen-containing atmosphere that can sustain animal and human life.
To watch plants make oxygen, all you need is a water plant like Elodea (available at pet stores), a large container, water and a few small clear glasses or test tubes.
Fill the large container with water and turn your small, clear containers on their sides underwater to remove all the air bubbles.
Cut a branch off of your plant, place it under water in the large container, shake off any air and put it under your small, clear container- stem side up. Invert the small container, allowing no air to enter it. Repeat the experiment with your other small clear container, but don’t add a plant. This is your control. If you’re using test tubes, you can put them in small cups or beakers so they don’t tip over. (See photo above.)
Place your experiment in bright sunlight or near a strong lamp and observe what happens. You should see oxygen bubbles form on the plant as it performs photosynthesis. In a test tube, you will eventually see some water displaced by oxygen.
What happens if you duplicate the experiment in a room with no light?
Tap water contains some carbon dioxide. How do you think the experiment would work with lake or pond water?
“Are you a good cook?” was the first thing Dr. Tsneo Suzuki asked when I sat down in the office next to his cancer research lab at the University of Kansas. I stared at the picture of his wife, who I later learned had passed away from breast cancer, and wondered whether I should be offended.
After all, I was in my twenties and had five years of molecular biology experience under my belt. But I understood why he asked the question. Once you figure out how to test a hypothesis, most science experiments involve following recipes, which scientists call protocols. Generally, if you can read directions and mix things together in the correct order, in the right proportions, you can do things like amplify DNA and clone genes into bacteria.
So I truthfully answered “Yes, I’m a pretty good cook,” and got the job.
Food preparation is like a science experiment. If you can follow a recipe, you should get something close to what you set out to make, because often the ingredients will interact with each other to make something new. This is the very definition of a chemical reaction. Everything you cook with, from water to baking soda, is just a collection of molecules.
Here’s a collection of some food science experiments on my website. Since I love to cook, I hope to add more in the future! Leave a comment if you have other favorite kitchen science experiments, and I’ll try to add them to the list.
Testing Foods for Starch- Add a drop of iodine and watch for color change to detect starch.
Crock Pot Microbiology: Making yogurt from scratch is a delicious experiment
Yeast Experiment: Pyramids, Pasteur and Plastic Baggies- Grow yeast in a plastic bag to see how they make bread rise.
Emulsions: Mayonnaise and Vinaigrette- Mix the un-mixable using surfactants.
Curds and Whey: Make glue and plastic from milk and vinegar.
Gluten Ball- Explore the protein that makes bread chewy.
Red Cabbage Juice CO2 experiment- Use the pH-sensitive pigment in red cabbage to illustrate how CO2 can acidify liquids (and why soda is bad for your teeth.)
Homemade Petri Plates: test surfaces around your kitchen and house for microbes. Use to test fingers before washing, after washing with water alone, after washing with soap, and after using hand sanitizer.
So remember, cooking can make you a better scientist, and doing science can make you a better cook.