There is no special interest story so special as one that involves your very own nephew. R.J. is in fourth grade and had his first science fair this year. We were honored when R.J. asked his Uncle Scott and I to help him with his project. We spent quite a while noodling over what subject to report on. Eventually it hit me. Soap! It’s always smart to play to your strengths. I was pretty sure this was one of the few aspects of chemistry I would be able to effectively explain to a fourth grader. After just a few discussions, a series of hand drawn diagrams, my own version of molecule charades, and some home reading, R.J. got it! By the time he wrote his report and built the display he really grasped the concepts of saponification and the inner workings of a soap molecule. I was pretty impressed.
To demonstrate saponification, R.J. and I made a batch of Hot Process Soap. Since lye is a pretty dangerous substance, R.J.’s actual “help” during this process was limited to observation through several parts of the process. First, R.J. helped me calculate the recipe, gather our equipment and ingredients, weigh the oils, and line the mold. Next, after donning our goggles and gloves (which looked especially cute on R.J.) I mixed the lye and water solution while R.J. observed from the other side of the room. I mixed the oil and the lye solution next. After getting rid of the lye solution’s container I invited R.J. back to my side of the room and we began the long process of stirring the hot process soap over the stove top. R.J., Scott, and I all took turns stirring while it went through its phases. We cheered when it entered what we called “applesauce stage”, and we nearly went wild when it reached “mashed potatoes”. We colored the soap, added fragrance, poured it into a mold, and later cut the soap into bars. Success!
R.J.’s final project was simply awesome. He drew up diagrams based on our earlier discussions, made a time line of soap’s history, displayed pictures of our soap making adventure, and displayed three different kinds of soap for people to see in person. He displayed one bar of melt and pour soap that he had made with me a week earlier, a bar of the hot process soap that we had made together, and a bar of cold process soap that I had given him for the display. Everyone at the fair stopped by to sniff all three bars! To top it all off, R.J. wrote an incredible report for his project, explaining how soap works, where it came from, how it is made, and why it is so important to us. I am thrilled to report that after all his hard work R.J. took home a first place ribbon, medal, and a trophy for his soap project. The entire family, aunts, uncles, grandparents, all called to congratulate R.J. on his huge success. We are all incredibly proud of him and his super suds!
Here is a closer look at R.J.’s diagrams. I think they were my favorite part!
What soap is made from:
Saponification / How soap is made:
A soap molecule:
How soap works:
This is my favorite one. You can’t see his caption in the picture but it read, “Soap molecules grab dirt and germs, than hitch a ride with water on its way down the drain.” An ingeniously simple explanation of how soap molecules do their job!