A few years ago I was teaching a middle school science class at an SEL school. Because of the school’s alternative nature, I was allowed to use whatever creative methods I wanted to help the kids to understand math and science.
In comes the Periodic Table of Elements. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, but not so much to pre-teens. We always integrated a lot of art into our lessons and I knew that keeping their attention when teaching energy levels and valence shell electrons was going to take some creativity.
So, I came up with the Energy Level Peace Flags.
I jokingly introduced the concept to the students by telling them that they were going to work on creating peace within themselves when delving into the periodic table… and you know what? It actually worked.
They had fun creating their own peace flags (also called Tibetan prayer flags), but with an artsy, chemistry-oriented twist.
Here’s how you do it…
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- watercolor paper – cut into sixths
- watercolors – I use the liquid version
- medium-sized paintbrush
- Avery star stickers (this brand peels off the watercolor paper the best)
- white crayon or wax-resist sticks (like the kind used for drawing on easter eggs)
- periodic table of elements chart
- energy level shells chart (ACS Middle School Chemistry has a GREAT tutorial and chart for this: Link)
At the bottom of this post, I have provided Amazon links to specific and helpful materials used for this lesson.
Food for thought:
- 1st energy shell = 2 electrons
- 2nd energy shell = 8 electrons
- 3rd energy shell = 8 electrons
- 4th energy shell = 16 electrons
Place one of your cut watercolor cards in front of you in a spot where you’re prepared to get a little messy with liquid watercolor. Draw a capital H representing Hydrogen in the center of the paper with your white crayon or wax-resistant stick. Then draw a circle around the H. This is the energy shell that will be where you will place ONE star sticker.
You have to turn the paper in the light to be able to see energy level and element letter. Once you have found your spot, put a star sticker on top of the energy level circle. It really doesn’t matter which side of the circle, but some diagrams are pretty specific. I try to keep it uniform to limit confusion. As for the star, it doesn’t matter what color the child uses because it is going to get peeled off in the end anyway!
Choose which color you’d like to use for Hydrogen. You can do this in any number of ways. For this tutorial I am choosing to do the groups of elements as a different color. For example, you’ll notice that all of the semi-metals will be a light purple, while all of the metals are a dark purplish blue. The alkali-earth metals are green and the alkali metals are red. I kept it simple and made mine similar to the table that I had printed off from Layers of Learning.
With the paintbrush soaked in watercolor, begin to paint the paper.
Keep painting with plenty of watercolor until you’ve finished the whole card. The wax will resist the liquid and reveal the magic element. I’ve used these as mystery games before, just like this. Make sure the watercolor is nice and wet since this will give it a better effect with the salt once sprinkled.
Take a sprinkle of salt…
And semi-liberally sprinkle it all over the watercolor card. For most colors, you’ll see an almost immediate attraction of the liquid towards the salt. This is also a great lesson in ionic compounds.
Set the card aside and let it dry. The paper may bend a little from the liquid, but it will flatten as it dries. Don’t take the star off yet. This comes during the scraping process.
Meanwhile, grab another card and choose another element!
Helium, or He, is next. I chose to go with orange.
Right out your He in the center, leaving plenty of space on the outside to draw a circle around it.
Helium has two electrons in its energy level, so place two star stickers on the circle. Again, you’ll notice different diagrams have different placements. It doesn’t matter where you put them, as long as they are on or in the energy level.
Drench your paintbrush and paint away…
… to reveal He!
After sprinkling with NaCl (salt), set it aside to dry.
On to Lithium!
Lithium, as an alkali metal, I chose as red. Write out the element symbol of Li. Since Lithium is element #3 and shows to have 3 electrons, we now draw TWO energy levels. This is because in the name of Chemistry we cannot have more than two electrons in the first energy level. The second energy level can have 8. Here’s a partial diagram to follow for the first three energy shells/levels.
Once you’ve drawn your energy levels, place your stickers accordingly. Right now it looks like I made a triangle, but you’ll see their placements once it’s painted…
After sprinkling Li with NaCl (salt), you can set it aside to dry.
Here’s Beryllium (Be) just for fun…
You can see it in the sunlight.
Painting it green.
Sprinkle the salt.
Set it out to dry.
Draw, paint, stickers, dry.
Now it’s time to reveal the element peace flag by scraping off the salt and peeling away the stickers.
On a dry surface – preferably a tray since you’ll have plenty of leftover salt – take your rag and start to wipe the salt off of the card. It normally comes off pretty easily. Many times you can even pour the salt off by tipping the paper sideways. Even better, sometimes tiny crystals stick onto the paper giving it a slight glitter effect.
Gently peel the star sticker off of the paper…
And there you have your first element peace flag!
Then scrub the salt off of Helium, and peel away the stickers.
So far, so good. I used twine to hang up my first few elements. I hung it up for inspiration to keep going! It sure does make the Periodic Table easier on the eyes!
Some middle school students got in on the process and chose which groups they wanted to do. This is a work in progress as we have a major drive to try to finish as many of the elements off of the periodic table as possible. You can see this process, and also what happens when you run out of space for stars… we had to get resourceful after brainstorming and that turned out pretty cool!
After Phosphorous (P), we knew it was time.
To see what we did, go to Chemistry: Energy Shell Peace Flags – II.
Then share this post with your favorite chemistry teacher!