Dyan Branstetter | February 2016

Make STEAM Beautiful with Twirly Whirly Milk

Twirly Whirly Milk

This is a classic science experiment that has been used from kindergarten to high school. I came across this experiment in the book Teaching Chemistry with Toys (a fabulous resource!) years ago, and since then I have found numerous versions online. Most lesson plans I find are either art activities or science lessons. However, not many truly reach both art and science standards. Here’s an example of how you can “STEAM up” the experiment to naturally connect science and art, making learning more powerful for students.

If you aren’t familiar with the experiment, here’s a general idea:

Add a few drops of food coloring to whole Twirly Whirly Milk. Using a cotton swab dipped in dish soap, touch the food coloring, and watch it swirl around. It creates a great reaction from the students, who are amazed at the “explosion of color” or food coloring “fireworks”. (See it in action at this video clip, including a description of the science behind it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr6dZ6aWpF4 .)

Taking it one step further, place a piece of cardstock, or watercolor paper, on the surface of the Twirly Whirly Milk, similar to how one marbles paper. (Almond milk works best for this). It captures the colors is a unique way providing a visual reminder of the activity.

Even without the marbling extension, this is a beautiful experiment that prompts some to call it a STEAM lesson. This is true in a basic sense of the STEAM acronym. But if the idea of STEAM is to guide student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking, we must reflect on how the lesson is crafted. If we do the activity for the oohs and ahhs, it is a fun activity, similar to a craft. If students complete the “experiment”, and say they have learned that food coloring swirls when you touch it with a Q-tip. The students have gained no new science or art concepts. We must reflect on best practice of both science and art to truly make this a STEAM lesson that affects student achievement.

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Twirly Whirly Milk Lesson

First and foremost, add the inquiry. This is best practice for both science and art. To do this in science, first introduce the materials to the students. With my third graders, I guide the beginning of the inquiry to make sure we have a scientific basis for our work with the materials. I ask them to ponder what they think will happen if we combine the milk, food coloring, and dish soap. We discuss hypotheses, and students write their own hypothesis in pen.

Many students want to change their hypothesis when they find they are incorrect, and I emphasize that an incorrect hypothesis can help scientists make discoveries about what doesn’t work to help them better understand science. Plus, it also leads to a new hypothesis. Writing in pen curbs the temptation to revise, allows students to own their original idea, and allows students to use inquiry skills when designing a follow-up hypothesis.

After completing the original experiment, allow students to perform it again, Only this time, replace the whole milk with other liquids, such as water, 1% milk, almond milk, or half & half. Split the class into groups, and have each group do the experiment with a different liquid. Student groups must record careful observations, and after obtaining results, gather as a whole group to share the results. After sharing, prompt students to form tentative conclusions about what happened. This is the time to teach the scientific concepts that make the colors swirl.

What About STEAM?

To add the STEAM, introduce the concept and history of marbling. Marbling paper originated as far back as the 1100’s and was originally used to prevent forgery of official signatures. And, it could also used for decorative purposes. In later years, it was used for decorative bookbinding. Students can preserve the beautiful color explosions from the experiment by following some of the same principles of traditional marbling. They could experiment to see which liquid allows them to get their desired result, and which amounts of food coloring or combinations of colors gives them that result.

Certainly, this addresses the standard of artists learning from trial and error! After marbling and once the paper dries, students can use their art as a masterpiece by itself. They could also use it as a science journal cover, where their Twirly Whirly Milk observations and lab notes reside.

Next week, I will share a printable lesson plan outlining this STEAM lesson for an elementary class, along with helpful student recording sheets.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.