Bursts of Energy...
Packing Materials: Sink or Swim?

Recommended grade levels: K-4

Goal: Students will explore potential energy by hypothesizing about the buoyancy of materials, observing and comparing the behavior of the materials, and drawing conclusions about the biodegradability of packing materials.

Process skills: Hypothesizing and Observing

Frameworks: Matter

Materials: (per student group) One bowl of water (optional: food coloring) foam plastic packing pieces of at least four different shapes, sizes, colors, etc. one piece of degradable packing material

Teacher background information:
Packing materials are often made from petrochemical by-products; therefore, packing materials such as the familiar plastic "peanut" contain potential energy. Degradable packing materials conserve energy and landfill space.

Note: This is a discovery activity; do not give advance information about what will happen or about the conclusion of the lesson.
Save some packing materials from yearly orders. Major educational resource companies use only biodegradable packing pieces. These companies usually send an information sheet explaining why they have chosen different materials.

Student groups of four will:
  1. Observe and record properties of the packing pieces. Note color, shape, size, texture, etc.
  2. Let the water in the bowls simulate any body of water (an ocean or lake).
  3. Make and number predictions about individual packing pieces. Which one will sink? Which one will float? Which one will turn upside down in the water! Which will fade or change color?
  4. Put placing pieces, one at a time into the bowls of water. Record observations.
  5. Compare observations with predictions.
  6. Discuss packing materials. What is each made from and what are some possible advantages and disadvantages of each?


  1. If a large truckload of the degradable packing material were dumped in a landfill or ocean, what would happen to the packing materials after a month or a year?
  2. If a large truckload of foamed plastic pieces were dumped into a landfi11 or ocean, what would be the condition of the packing pieces after a month? a year? five years? fifty years?
  3. If great masses of non-degradable material-including all-plastic products-are dumped in landfills or oceans, what will be the consequences after many years?
  4. Can you think of any disadvantages to using only water degradable packing material?
  5. Could water degradable material replace foamed plastic? Would you buy a soda or hot coffee in a water soluble container rather than a foamed plastic cup? (No-liquids would dissolve a water soluble cup.)
Have students:

  1. Write a persuasive paragraph explaining the benefits of degradable packing material.
  2. Make a compost can with buried foamed plastic and com starch pieces. Record their observations.

Teacher resource:
World Wide Web: http://www.need.org/curriculum National Energy Education Development Project
The mission of the NEED Project is to promote an energy conscious and educated society by creating effective networks of students, educators, business, government and community leaders to design and deliver objective, multi-sided energy education programs.

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