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Kids Turn Snow Into Chemistry Lab At Montshire Museum

It’s been a snowy February, and that’s got lots of kids outdoors building forts and snowmen. But what’s in that stuff, and how does it work?  During school vacation week, the Montshire Museum, in Norwich, invited some young scientists to experiment with winter’s chemistry set.

Just outside the back door of the museum, there’s a small snowdrift. It’s also an archeology dig for construction materials.  Montshire science educator Mike Fenzel gives three students, aged 8, 9 and 10, small hand saws, as he excavates layers of snow, then ice.

“And you can hear, we’ve gone through to get down through the fluffy stuff, you can probably hear the ice layer that we’re going to find on the bottom,” Fenzel says as he digs.

Those layers, Fenzel explains, tell the chronological story of several weeks worth of weather. The most compact snow will make blocks for a shelter.

But that’s not all ice is good for.  You can also pour water into balloons, and freeze them overnight. 

Inside the museum, the chemists peel the latex off icy smooth balls, stick them in shallow glass bowls, salt them, squirt food coloring on them,  and aim flashlights at the day-glo globes.

“What could you see happening to your ice balloon?” Fenzel asks.

“It cracked,” says eight-year-old Hope Kuper.

“Yeah,” says Fenzel. “And with the light on them too, it was almost like a little spark of change in the balloon also. And this huge fissure ran right across the ice balloon and you could see it with the illumination on there. With the flashlight shining on it you could see this little spark across the balloon, the ice balloon, as it cracked from the salt.”

The kids want a closer look, so they put their ice balls under a microscope.

“I think it looks like dye, dye running through the cracks,” Hope Kuper observes.

Along with the ice balls, the experimenters have formed some theories. 

“That plain water will melt salt,” Hope Kuper says.

“That fluffy snow, when you compact it, it makes it a lot better for building things,” adds Xavier Khan.

“That salt actually helps the water not turn into ice but it keeps it as water so the cars don’t slide,” notes Minnue Uhm.

And here’s something else they learn when they stick thermometers in a pile of salty slush.

“As we added more and more salt into our slushy mixture we saw the temperature go further and further down toward zero and it was all staying water and we even got some water at minus 2 degrees Farenheit,” teacher Mike Fenzel reminds them.

All very confidence-building for the drive back to our studio  through a snow squall, on a freshly salted Route 5.

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