Where in the world can I find Plastic Polymers. Why are they used?

Don Fraser, Oak Crest Elementary - Belle Plaine, MN, based on unit of study from the Houghton Mifflin Science Series (2007) - Chapter Matter Changes pages E2-E29.
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Students will need to have basic prior knowledge about physical and chemical changes in matter. Our students will be using the prior knowledge they gained after completing the (2007) Houghton Mifflin science curriculum — Chapter: Matter Changes pages E2-E29. Students will create a T-Chart as to where they think they will find plastic polymers vs. where they actually found plastic polymers in daily life, along with possible reasons for why they found certain plastic polymers in a certain place. Students will perform tests to determine the physical properties of some of the plastic polymers they found and hypothesize how its chemical properties allow it to have unique physical properties. Students will also be categorizing various types of plastic polymers from their T-charts into groups to identify where they are typically found in everyday life. The students will then complete an online website activity and enrichment activity, followed by an online test to determine student understanding.

Learning Goals

This activity is designed for students to:
  • Develop a hypothesis and take part in a controlled scientific experiment
  • Compare data and draw conclusions based on the experiment
  • Apply the knowledge to their daily life
  • Process skills used in the investigation include: observing, questioning, comparing, predicting, and recording.

Key vocabulary (concepts)
Prior knowledge

atoms (atoms combine to make molecules)
solid liquid gas (these are the states of matter that the students will review)

New knowledge
polymer (molecules that are built as a long repeating chains)
malleable (the students will try to change its shape)

Context for Use

Grade level - 3-5: Groups of 2 or 4 for T-chart and sorting activity, students will do the enrichment website and and online test alone
Class size 24-30; Rural Public School Facility
T-chart collection and classification 1-2 days
Enrichment website and online test 1 day
Lessons (including Lecture/Vocabulary, Classification Activity, Experimentation, Application, and Assessment)

This activity is intended to build upon and enrich students' prior knowledge of atoms and molecules as they relate to physical/chemical properties and changes.

Description and Teaching Materials


Various plastic objects for sorting activity, and hammers
Plastic examples from students homes
Plastic examples from school
Computer lab/internet access
Science notebook/ pencil

Introductory Activity - Sorting Activity

  • Build onto knowledge of atoms/molecules and physical properties with study of polymers.
  • Examine objects
  • Sort objects as to where (room location) they found the plastic polymers based on their observations.
  • Discuss how they (group) should group items based on their observations

Discuss how some of these linked molecules have unique physical properties due to their structure to stretch and bend while others do not. We will examine their structure more in the upcoming demonstration and experiment.

Other variation - Plastics can be grouped into categories (4 examples may include: hard, soft, sticky, and malleable) and students can use the plastics found at home to share as examples of these four categories. Their examples can be represented by 4 different polymer pets. (idea from Gloria Brandt or Amy Fahey's polymer lesson)

Experiment & Demonstration

Review with students about the polymer and how their chain-like structure stays connected, yet can be moved by other objects. Demonstrate with a magnetic picture version of a polymer on the board. Share with the students how we are going to investigate the properties of polymers with a hammer and some of their plastic items that they brought in.

  • Show a balloon with air and ask what would happen if I hit it with a hammer. (It would burst)
  • Then hold up a balloon without air and ask the same question
  • Have students try hitting some of their items they brought in by being a volunteer
  • Then complete a basic T-chart (guiding them through the observations, knowledge, want to know sections)
  • Allow students to hypothesize about other things they could try on the plastic bag (to test polymer structure) - examples: place rocks inside a bag, different positions (on top), different objects, fill with water, different bag types
  • Regroup to discuss hypotheses tested and what they learned (Change T-charts - where or what room might there be a new use for this item? - do second online activity called Plastics in your home)
  • If possible use a ball of yarn to show how yarn can be pierced by a pencil and the fibers remained gathered together around the pencil.

Culminating Activity

Direct students to a website game (first online activity called "Plastics and Safety" to practice their knowledge of polymers and how to apply them to real world locations based on what they are used for. When students have finished the game, have them explore objects used in the online game and discuss. For assessment have students take the online quiz and record their scores.

Web sites

Jancie VanCleave's 204 Sticky, Gloppy, Wacky, & Wonderful Experiments. 2002 Jossey-Bass.

Houghton Mifflin Science 2007.

Many Polymer online activities ( 15kB Aug12 08)

Polymer T-chart (Microsoft Word 23kB Aug12 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students need to be reminded that this is a hands-on scientific investigation and that appropriate behavior and handling of materials (especially hammers) is expected.


Students can be assessed in the follow ways:
  • Science journal (observations, questions, hypothesis, data)
  • T-chart classifications
  • Online assessment test


Grade 3.1.A.1 (Scientific World View) Student will explore the use of science as a tool that can help investigate and answer questions about the environment.

Grade 3.1.B.1 (Scientific Inquiry) Students will ask questions about the natural world that can be investigated scientifically.

References and Resources