Elementary School Science: Simple Molecular Models

This year, I’ll be teaching a food chemistry unit to my elementary school science class.  It’s a mixed-age homeschool class, with kids ranging in age from 8-11.  I’ll be using the STC Curriculum “Food Chemistry” which is structured around using chemical test to discover what macro-molecules are found in various foods.

I like the curriculum and will be following many of the lessons quite closely, but I’ll be making a few modifications.  The most significant change is that I’m going to add some very simple molecular modelling activities.  There isn’t consensus about whether elementary school age children should be introduced to molecular concepts or not.  I’ll be treating this as an experiment.  I only have one section of the class, so data will be limited, but I’m curious to see how much the children are able to get out of this activity.

I’ll have the children model the molecules using paper chains.  One link in the chain will be a monomer.  Two links attached together will be a dimer.  A long chain will be a polymer.  Different colors of paper will represent different types of monomers.  In the pictures below, the blue paper represents carbohydrates.

paper monosacharide
A representation of a carbohydrate monomer, such as glucose.
A representation of a disacharide, such as sucrose.
A representation of a disacharide, such as sucrose.
A representation of a carbohydrate polymer, i.e., starch.
A representation of a carbohydrate polymer, i.e., starch.

I haven’t yet made model proteins or fats to photograph, but we’ll represent proteins with long paper chains made from many different colors of paper to represent the various amino acids.  Fats will be represented by a long paper chain of uniform color, except for a single paper ring at one end of a different color.  The differently colored ring will represent the carboxyl groups and the rest of the structure will represent the hydrocarbon chain.

One aspect of this project that I’m looking forward to being able to display the finished models and explanations in my shared classroom.  I’m hoping that the models will be large and visually striking enough to attract attention from other students and teacher.  And, if things go really well, my students will be able to proudly explain what the models represent to people who are not part of the class.

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