Chemistry and Thanksgiving: Making lessons relevant

Why does a turkey pop-up timer work? Why do muffins rise? Why do you feel so bloated after Thanksgiving dinner--and which antacid works faster?

Those questions may sound like they belong in a food magazine but they were at the core of a demonstration in a chemistry course at Catholic University, an effort by Professor Diane Bunce to engage her students in a subject that some may find remote.

Finding an unconventional way into a conventional subject is a device many teachers attempt.

At the University of California at Irvine, for example, students can learn physics and astronomy through the prism of superheroes (Says the course description: Have you ever wondered if superman could really fly? What was Spiderman’s spidey sense?

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Professor Thomas Beyer, a professor of Russian, is teaching freshmen about scholarship by having them research and write about Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

Finding unusual ways to engage students can be successful, but some efforts are more successful than others. (I am especially wary of attempts to make subjects “relevant” to the lives of young people; for example, comparing a cell to a Reese’s peanut butter factory, or those “text to self connections” in textbooks that invite young kids to take any historical event, say Genghis Khan’s raids on the Kara-Khitan Khanate, and make a connection to their 21st century lives.)

Bunce’s chemistry lesson, called “Thanksgiving Dinner and Chemistry--What’s the Connection” worked. She posed a series of common questions that might arise at a Thanksgiving table then demonstrated the chemical reactions that provided the answers. You can watch the video here at or

Here are the answers to only three of the questions she raises in the video:

Why does a turkey pop-up timer work?
The timers are a stick and a spring that is held in place with a piece of metal solder. As the turkey cooks and reaches 185 degree Fahrenheit, when the turkey is ready to eat, the solder melts and the pop up stick is released.
“The pop-up timer cares nothing about your turkey,” she said. It is just obeying the laws of science.

Why do muffins rise?

It’s the chemical reaction that occurs when baking soda and milk (or any acid) combine and produce carbon dioxide gas. The CO2 escapes and pulls the batter up with it.

Why do you feel so bloated after Thanksgiving dinner--and which antacid works faster?

You know the answer to the first question--excess gas in your stomach. But about the antacid? To digest food, the stomach releases acid--and when you eat a lot of food, like you do on Thanksgiving, a lot of acid turns up. Antacids are bases that neutralize the acid. In the process of neutralization, carbon dioxide gas is formed.

Bunce tested three antacids: Tums, Alka Seltzer and the old fashioned remedy of 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Which works fastest? The baking soda. And how does the body get rid of the CO2 in your stomach? By burping!

Tell us some of the more interesting ways your teachers--or your child’s--have used to engage a class. And tell us about the ones you think were real stretches.

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By Valerie Strauss  |  November 25, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Courses  | Tags: chemistry, making lessons relevant Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Previous: Should the National Council of Teachers of English win its own Doublespeak award?
Next: Why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving (when the Pilgrims ate deer)--and other holiday myths


This is too cool - my 6th period is longer today so after my lesson, I'm going to show this!! Yay chemistry in action!!

Posted by: annwhite1 | November 25, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

My physics prof in college demonstrated everything using a stuffed frog. That little touch of humor was pretty much the only thing that got me out of bed for an 8:30 class.

Best ever, though, was my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Grabner. He personally demonstrated the three different types of energy in an atom (translational = walking; vibrational = shaking; rotational = turning like a ballerina). And then, he noted, sometimes you get all three at once. The visual was priceless -- he was 6-foot-plus, and looked like a combination of Mr. Spock and a vampire. He would also digress into topics like "what do you do when you're driving downhill and your brakes fail" -- not exactly chemistry, but he always had a scientific explanation, and it always made class interesting.

Posted by: laura33 | November 25, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The best thing you can do with that pop-up timer is pull it out. If you wait until it pops to take your turkey out of the oven, there won't be enough gravy in the world to compensated for dried out meat.

Posted by: cab91 | November 25, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

The pop-up thermometers I have looked at use a wax that melts at a certain temperature. A melting metal brings to mind lead, mercury and all sorts of nasty metals you would not want in your turkey. For the muffins to rise that milk had better be sour or you used baking powder which has both a carbonate and an acid in it.

Posted by: ruidoso | November 26, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

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