Team challenges, experiments and puzzles – Kristy Turner keeps students engaged in the run-up to Christmas

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Source: © Andrew Lambert Photography/Science Photo Library

Brace yourselves, Christmas is coming. The usual directions are given by headteachers across the country: we must keep the kids learning right to the end of term. Meanwhile, the PE department are working through the fourth round of their annual Twister tournament and the geography corridor is rapidly turning into a multiplex cinema.

Of course, you can continue forging your way through the syllabus (necessary for a number of exam classes), but for those with a little space in the curriculum or wanting to inject a bit of joy into the last week of term, here’s a few activities that make use of some good chemistry.

Teamwork challenges

Christmas-themed chemistry challenges – whodunnit-style problems solved with simple analytical techniques – are a great way to get students investigating. Flame tests and test tube reactions for anions and cations are the most commonly used chemistry in these activities. This makes them accessible for all ages, right through to GCSE students studying the analysis topic. 

Dress them up around a simple festive story and you have a suitable learning activity for the last week of term, while collaborative working adds another dimension (I always include points for tidy working). Here’s one great example.

Of all the possibilities for this time of year, I think Christmas chemistry challenges are my favourite. If the headteacher pops by they will see students engaged in a demanding practical activity and working in teams. Students generally enjoy doing extended practicals, especially if there are suitable (read: chocolate) prizes.

Topic-based activities

There are some Christmas activities that fit in nicely with particular topics. I have recently been teaching acids and alkalis to my year 8 classes so I will definitely be trying this method for making indicator paper from poinsettia flowers. 

And for those who haven’t already done it, there’s always making indicators from ‘Christmas’ vegetables – red cabbage and broccoli give excellent results.

For older students studying redox chemistry and electrolysis, how about electroplating their own tree decorations?

For younger classes, working scientifically is a good focus. This activity involving dissolving candy canes provides opportunities to make predictions, look at control variables and record observations.

And, when you can’t beat ‘em …

A few years ago I inherited a couple of human body jigsaws. These were, surprisingly, a huge hit at the end of term. 

Worryingly, my selection of jigsaw puzzles has now expanded to include several from the Horrible Science range and a number of periodic table puzzles (the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Visual Elements puzzle is good). 

I find a group of four can work together to put together a 300–500 piece puzzle, it’s interesting to see how they organise themselves to get the task done in the lesson and surprising how few know to find all the edge pieces first. One of my best memories of Christmas in school is seeing a group of challenging 12 year olds sat down next to the headteacher of my previous school tackling a jigsaw together. But if you're not up for unleashing thousands of jigsaw pieces on your classroom, how about trying Elements Top Trumps?

Which gas is most likely to make up the majority of the Star of Bethlehem?

And if all else fails there are a number of science quizzes on the web suitable for audiences from early high school right through to undergraduates. I find they're better for older classes since they rely on a wide basis of scientific and general knowledge and quizzes are somehow less satisfying than something kinaesthetic.

I’d love to see what you are up to in the last week of term – tweet us your ideas!

Kristy is a teacher and teacher fellow, splitting her time between Bolton School Boys’ Division and the University of Manchester

Image © Andrew Lambert Photography/Science Photo Library