Building a Stinkin’ Community

I’m going to start out my first post on this blog by looking back to one of my most vivid classroom lab experiences ever.  One year ago in my chemistry class, we were making soap.  This was the real deal–we started from scratch and used nothing but fat and lye to make soap the way people around the world have been making it for thousands of years.

It was right before Mother’s Day, and many of the students had high hopes of presenting their mothers with a handcrafted gift of soap.  They spent several days working on cardboard soap molds shaped like stars, hearts, and even a guitar mold made by a talented student musician.

Anticipation was high the day of the soap making itself.  Students bring in their own sources of fat–most bring in things like Crisco, coconut oil or lard.  Last year, however, the vast majority of students brought in butter. After the butter was melted, it was time to add the sodium hydroxide (lye).  Students pour the soft soap into their molds, and it hardens over a few days.

The trouble started quite quickly.  A student working with my personal favorite hot plate was a bit impatient and turned the thing up to high.  This hot plate really cooks, so the “high” setting led to boiling over of the fatty sodium hydroxide solution onto the hot plate surface.  Students at nearby lab stations noticed an acrid burning odor.

The acrid burning odor got worse–it turned into one of the most foul scents there has ever been in my chemistry lab.  It was like rancid butter, but far worse.  The sticky mess continued to bubble on the hot plate surface, and over the control knobs.   I grabbed a hot mitt to turn it off–I got the hot plate turned off, but now the mitt was covered with the putrid substance.  We opened windows and turned on exhaust fans.  Let’s admit it–this smell was bad.  When organic chemistry goes wrong, it is not pleasant on the nose. Amid the colorful student comments concerning the odor, one student said, “I feel like I might vomit.” Another student noted, “I wish someone would vomit–that might actually make it smell better in here.”

Meanwhile, a few lab stations over, the aspiring musician was pouring his solution into his guitar mold.  His mold was not well constructed, and the weight of the solution caused the whole thing to collapse, spilling the greasy smelly mess all over the counter and the floor.   Wanting to be helpful, the student grabbed a pile of hot mitts and used them to soak up the liquid–we now had a pile of stinky hot mitts.

I was getting out the chemical spill kit to deal with the rest of the mess when the door opened.  Perfect–it’s the assistant principal in my room for an unannounced walk through!  I mumbled a few words of explanation, a bit chagrinned by the three ring circus of chaos that was unfolding.  “But looking at classrooms is much more authentic this way!” he assured me as he sidestepped a mess on the floor.

Some students had actually filled their molds with solution and were putting them away in a cabinet. I went back to see how they looked.  Much to my consternation, one student had clearly made a bar of soap shaped and colored like a psychedelic mushroom.  This was completely inappropriate for school and I would not tolerate something like this in my classroom.  I went about trying to find the perpetrator.  After a few inquiries, I had a suspect.  It wasn’t a student who I would normally associate with such nefarious behavior, but one never knows.  I asked the student what he thought he was doing making such a thing at school.  He protested his innocence.  Holding the alleged magic mushroom up to himself, he said, “But Ms. Johnson, I was just trying to make a piece of soap that looked like the sweater I was wearing today!”

I examined the sweater.  I examined the soap.  Sure enough, they were a close match.  How was I supposed to know the sides of the mushroom were actually sweater sleeves?  This student’s collection of sweaters was a standing joke at school, and he had decided that the especially colorful and fuzzy sweater he had on today was worth memorializing in soap. 
The lab ended and we got most of the place cleaned up.

Lessons learned?  Well, we won’t be making soap from butter again!  Sodium hydroxide breaks down the fats, the triglycerides, into three fatty acids.  A sodium ion then combines with a fatty acid to form a soap molecule.  When you use butter as the source of fat, and then apply too much heat, the fatty acid is broken down even further to butyric acid, the chemical providing the odor in both rancid butter and vomit.

Did we actually have any product to show for our efforts? No–instead we had a stinking mess!   What did we get?  Well, hopefully the students got a vivid mental hook to hang some of their ideas on both about lab safety and the chemical reactions involved.

More than that, we had a strong shared experience in chemistry class.  Maybe we all stank, but at least we stank together!  The most well-designed lesson ever will go nowhere unless it is built on a positive classroom climate, and common experiences provide that.  The social media project that this blog is a part of is all about expanding our community beyond our school.  To do that well, we first need to make sure that we have strong relationships with the people we see every day.

It’s a tough time in our state.  It’s a tough time in our district.  Let’s make sure we capitalize on our shared experiences to build that sense of community.

Leave a comment


  1. Todd

     /  April 27, 2011

    You sure know how to show your kids a good time- Todd

  2. What an awesome lab! I mean even if it turned into a vomitous mess, what a great learning experience! As you mentioned, those students will probably never forget about lab safety and what happens when you overheat lye and butter 🙂


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