Lesson: Chemical Wonders

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A graduated cylinder, a volumetric flask, an Erlenmeyer flask, and three beakers.
Students examine chemcial wonders
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Laboratory_glassware#/media/File:Lab_glassware.jpg


Students are introduced to chemical engineering and learn about its many different applications. They are provided with a basic introduction to matter and its different properties and states. An associated hands-on activity gives students a chance to test their knowledge of the states of matter and how to make observations using their five senses: touch, smell, sound, sight and taste.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Chemical engineers are involved in many different fields, from fuel manufacturing to candy and chocolate production! Chemical engineers work with chemical elements to design a process or an item. They understand that different materials have different characteristics and properties, and choose materials for specific applications based on their properties. These properties depend on what the materials are made of, as well as their state: solid, liquid or gas.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Give examples of three things that chemical engineers create.
  • Identify the three states of matter (solid, liquid and gas) and give examples of each.
  • Explain that solids have a fixed shape and volume, liquids take the shape of their container and gases expand to fill the space available.

More Curriculum Like This

Close Encounters of the Polymer Kind

Students explore the basic characteristics of polymers through the introduction of two polymer categories: thermoplastics and thermosets. During teacher demos, students observe the unique behaviors of thermoplastics.

Separating Mixtures

Students learn how to classify materials as mixtures, elements or compounds and identify the properties of each type. The concept of separation of mixtures is also introduced since nearly every element or compound is found naturally in an impure state such as a mixture of two or more substances, and...

High School Lesson
To Heat or Not to Heat?

Students are introduced to various types of energy with a focus on thermal energy and types of heat transfer as they are challenged to design a better travel thermos that is cost efficient, aesthetically pleasing and meets the design objective of keeping liquids hot.

High School Activity
Eat Iron?!!

To gain an understanding of mixtures and the concept of separation of mixtures, students use strong magnets to find the element of iron in iron-fortified breakfast cereal flakes. Through this activity, they see how the iron component of this heterogeneous mixture (cereal) retains its properties and ...

High School Activity

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Plan and conduct an investigation to describe and classify different kinds of materials by their observable properties. (Grade 2) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above


It is halftime at the soccer game and you decide to investigate the various booths and vendors to find some souvenirs to bring home to your parents and little brother and sister who could not come on the trip with you. There are so many different options available: candy, toys, posters, clothing, etc. You make a decision at several booths and pick out the following items to bring home:

  • For your mom, a fleece jacket with the Olympic logo.
  • For your dad, an official soccer jersey from his favorite team.
  • For your brother, a box of chocolates shaped like different Olympic events.
  • For your sister, a framed photograph of her favorite sport.

While you are making your purchases, your teacher buys a bottle of headache medicine for one of the other chaperones who has been complaining of a headache since the beginning of the game.

Do you think that the items that you and your teacher bought have anything in common? Let's think about who was involved in the creation of each item. Do you know? Well, each of these items was actually created with the help of chemical engineers! Knowing that, what do you think chemical engineers do? Chemical engineers use their knowledge of chemistry to convert chemicals and materials into more useful forms. Chemical engineers are involved in several fields, including food science, photography, and the development of materials needed for the aerospace, biomedical, automotive, computer, environmental and electronic industries. Let's brainstorm some other items that chemical engineers are involved in developing. Among the many, many developments, they are involved in the production of all kinds of materials, including gasoline, biodiesel, even candy.

One of the most important decisions chemical or materials engineers have to make is which material to use for each specific task. To determine which materials to use, engineers look at the many different properties of the material available to them. Properties are characteristics that help to describe the material. Every material is made up of something called matter. Matter is defined as anything that takes up space and has mass. That means that you are made up of matter, as is your desk, your backpack, your books, your juice box, your pencil — and anything else that you can imagine! Everything is made up of matter, and matter has several different states. Does anyone know what the different states of matter are? The most common three states are solid, liquid and gas. Can you think of some examples of each of these different states?

Solids, liquids and gasses all behave in different ways. One important difference is in their shapes and volumes. Solids have a fixed shape and a fixed volume. For example, think of a sugar cube. No matter in what shape container you place the cube, it will stay the same shape and size. Liquids, on the other hand, have a fixed volume, but they take the shape of their container. If you pour juice into a round cup, or a square box, it will take the shape of the cup or box. Gasses expand to fill the container they are in, so they have neither a fixed shape nor a fixed volume.

Some other properties of materials include mass, color, shape, volume and texture. When building or designing something, engineers have to consider all of these properties and decide which material is best suited for the task at hand. Let's imagine that you have been asked to design the official USA Olympic team's warm-up suits. What kind of materials would you want to use? What properties should these materials have? Materials for the warm-ups would all be solids, not liquids, and we would assume they should be soft, light and comfortable. Naturally, for team USA, the specific colors red, white and blue would be used. You would not want to choose a really textured material, such as sandpaper, because it would not be at all comfortable for the athletes and coaches to wear.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers


Matter is defined as anything that takes up space and has mass. It is anything made up of atoms and molecules. Matter has five different states, though there are three that are most commonly discussed: solid, liquid and gas.

Solids are items that you can hold that have a certain size and shape. Some examples of solids would be blocks of wood, a desk, the floor, etc. Solids do not have to be hard; they can be soft and fluffy, like a pillow or a cotton ball. Solids hold their shape unless a force is applied. The shape of a solid can be changed by squishing, cutting or twisting the object.

Liquids are items that have volume, but no set shape. Liquids take the shape of the container in which they are placed. Some examples are soda or juice in cans/containers, a glass full of water, or even a spoon full of cough syrup. When you pour a liquid from one container to the other, the shape of the liquid changes, but the volume of liquid stays the same.

Gas is matter that has no set size or shape. Gas will expand to fill a container or if not contained, will continue to spread. An example would be the gas filling a pressurized bag of chips. The air we breathe is made up of many different gases.

There are some forms of matter that exhibit properties from more than one state. One example is Jell-O®. Jell-O® begins as a liquid, but after being refrigerated, changes into a solid. Butter is a solid at room temperature, but when heat is added, the butter melts and becomes a liquid. Water is all around us in all three states: as ice (a solid), as drinking water (a liquid) and as water vapor (a gas). Water goes through phase changes at specific temperatures to alter its state from a solid to a liquid to a gas. Water has a melting point of 0 degrees Centigrade; at this temperature, ice begins to melt and become liquid water. Conversely, water has a vapor point of 100 degrees Centigrade; at this temperature, liquid water boils and becomes steam or water vapor.

Some properties of matter can be identified through observations, such as those found using your five senses: smell, touch, sound, sight and taste.

Feats of Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is an enormous field with many different applications and job options. See below for a list of the 10 greatest achievements in chemical engineering (from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, http://www.pafko.com/history/h_whatis.html). Chemical engineers had a major role in each of these triumphs.

The Atom

Our ability to split the atom and isolate isotopes has advanced biology, medicine, metallurgy, and power generation beyond belief. An abrupt conclusion to World War II occurred with the production of the atomic bomb. Today the technology of the atomic bomb has found uses in more peaceful applications: medical doctors now use isotopes to monitor bodily functions to quickly identify clogged arteries and veins; biologists gain invaluable insight into the basic mechanisms of life; and archaeologists can accurately date their historical findings thanks to this achievement.


The 19th Century brought about enormous advances in polymer chemistry. However, during the 20th Century, chemical engineers mass produced polymers, turning the concept into a viable economic reality. A plastic called Bakelite, introduced in 1908, quickly found uses in electric insulation, plugs and sockets, clock bases, iron cooking handles, and fashionable jewelry.

The Human Reactor

Chemical engineers study complex chemical processes by breaking them up into smaller "unit operations." Fortunately, this concept has also been applied to the human body. The results of such analysis have helped improve clinical care, suggested improvements in diagnostic and therapeutic devices, and led to mechanical wonders such as artificial organs. Medical doctors and chemical engineers continue to work hand in hand to help us live longer, fuller lives.


Today's low price, high volume, drugs owe their existence to the work of chemical engineers. This ability to bring once scarce materials to all members of society through industrial creativity is a defining characteristic of chemical engineering.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers keep us warm and comfortable in the form of blankets, pillows and clothing. They help reduce the reliance on natural sources of cotton and wool, and can be tailored to specific applications. For example; nylon stockings and bullet proof vests are made from synthetic fibers.

Liquefied Air

When air is cooled to very low temperatures (about 320o F below zero), it condenses into a liquid and allowing chemical engineers to separate out the different components. The purified nitrogen is used to recover petroleum, freeze food, produce semiconductors or prevent unwanted reactions. Oxygen is used to make steel, smelt copper, weld metals together and support the lives of patients in hospitals.

The Environment

Chemical engineers provide answers to clean up waste and prevent pollution. Catalytic converters, reformulated gasoline and smoke stack scrubbers all help keep the world a cleaner place. Furthermore, chemical engineers help reduce the strain on natural materials through the development of synthetic replacements, more efficient processing of the materials and new recycling technologies.


Chemical fertilizers help provide nutrients (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) to crops, which in turn provide us with a bountiful and balanced diet. In certain regions of Asia and Africa, where food can sometimes be scarce, the development of fertilizers is very critical to their food source. Finally, chemical engineers are at the forefront of food processing where they help create better tasting and most nutritious foods.


Chemical engineers have helped develop processes to break down the complex organic molecules found in crude oil into much simpler species. These building blocks are then separated and recombined to form many useful products including: gasoline, lubricating oils, plastics, synthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers.

Synthetic Rubber

Chemical engineers played a prominent role in developing today's synthetic rubber industry. Tires, gaskets, hoses, and conveyor belts (not to mention running shoes) are all made of rubber.

Famous Chemical Engineers

Many famous chemical engineers were founders or involved in amazing engineering feats. Paul Berg won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to genetic engineering. Bob Gore, the inventor of Gore-Tex, held a chemical engineering degree from University of Delaware. And, actor Dolph Lundgren — who played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — received a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Not to be outdone, Kevin Olmstead, the World-record game record winner in 2001, has B.S. and M.S. chemical engineering degrees from Case Western Reserve University and MIT, and later earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan.

Some famous celebrities hold chemical engineering degrees. For instance, Kevin Brown, a pitcher for the San Diego Padres, has a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Tech; and Frank Capra, famous film director, earned a degree in chemical engineering before going on to the film business.

Many, many more famous chemical engineers pioneered technologies that have made our lives better. See a detailed list at the University of California San Diego, American Institute of Chemical Engineers' website: http://aiche.ucsd.edu/


Chemical engineering: The application of scientific and mathematical knowledge to convert raw chemicals and materials into more useful forms.

Fluid: A substance that has the ability to flow and does not resist deformation.

Gas: A fluid; one of the states of matter; defined by having no fixed shape or volume; fill the container that they are held within.

Liquid: A fluid; one of the states of matter; have a fixed volume but a shape defined by the container in which the liquid is placed.

Material properties: A set of characteristics that describes a material; can include the state of a material — solid, liquid or gas, as well as its characteristics, such as what it looks, smells, feels, tastes and sounds like.

Material science: A division of chemical engineering focusing on the study and development of new materials specially designed for their specific purpose.

Matter: The substance of which physical objects are composed; anything that takes up space and has mass.

Solid: One of the states of matter, defined by a having a set shape and volume; can be deformed or altered, but does not change on its own.

Associated Activities

  • Solid, Liquid or Gas? - Students become familiar with different properties of materials. They choose certain materials to build an object of their choice.

Lesson Closure

You return to your seats with your souvenirs and new knowledge about different materials. You are excited to watch the second half of the game and hope that your team wins! You have had some time to learn that chemical engineers are involved in many different fields and also to identify some key properties that different materials have. As you turn your attention back to the soccer game, you wonder about the different things that a chemical engineer might have been involved in with the Olympics. You think about all the different aspects: the field itself, the player's jerseys and equipment, sports drinks on the sidelines, etc. Can you think of three more things that chemical engineers could be responsible for creating? Think also of the properties of each item we are considering. Is it a solid, liquid or gas? Is it durable, hard, soft, etc.? Can someone remember how solids, liquids and gasses are different in their shapes and volumes? How about how they behave in different shaped containers?

Now, you are well on your way to understanding all about chemical engineers and their importance in society. When you get home, think about everything that was affected by the advancement of chemical engineering.



Pre-Lesson Assessment

Brainstorm: Ask students to try to come up with definitions for solid, liquid or gas. Bring up some tricky examples (Jell-O®, butter, water, etc.) to show that some objects are not easily defined as one particular state.

Post-Introduction Assessment

Creative Chemical Engineers: Have students draw a picture of a scene from the Olympics that includes three things designed by Chemical Engineers (ideas might include: food, clothing, candy, plastics, photographs, synthetic materials used in sports equipment, different fuels, etc.). Have them identify which three items these are on the back of the page. If time allows, give students the chance to share their pictures with each other for other students to find the three items in their picture.

Worksheet: Have students complete the attached Chemical Wonders Worksheet, ideally using complete sentences. You can promote class discussion on the differences between the materials also. Essentially, the students should be comfortable with describing materials in different ways (others include: smell, taste, shininess, temperature). Emphasize that a lot of science is based on properties of materials, such as how much light it absorbs or scatters, or how certain chemicals react with the material. These are all OBSERVABLE PROPERTIES. Make sure to write on the board any adjectives used by the students.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Class Presentation/Role Play: Working in groups of two, three or four, have students give a presentation to the class in which they act out dynamically the concepts that they learned in the unit. Encourage them to be creative and role-play.

Divide the class into six groups. Have each team create a skit to illustrate each of the states of matter: solid, liquid and gas (assign two groups for each state). Have them demonstrate real life examples and the characteristics of each state. Make sure they understand and say in their skits that solids have a fixed shape and volume, liquids have a fixed volume but take the shape of their container, and gasses have neither a fixed shape or volume but expand to fill their container.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students investigate making their own chemical creation. The Carnegie Mellon website has an activity where students make their own "Goofy Putty" and learn more about the different properties of matter. Have them visit; http://www.cmu.edu/gelfand/k12-teachers/polymers/polymer-architecture/glue-putty.html for more information on this activity.

Many common items are made with petroleum-based plastics. As we grow more aware of the limited amount of oil, chemical engineers are exploring other ways of making these every day plastics. Have students research a household item made of plastic and report to the class about the progress being made in alternative materials.


McCafferty, AnnMarie. Pennsylvania Governor's Institutes and Academies for Educators, Carnegie Mellon Institute, Department of Chemistry, Materials, "What is Matter?" July 2001, http://www.cmu.edu/gipse/materials/pdf-2001/matter.pdf

Pafko, Wayne. American Institute of Chemical Engineers, "The History of Chemical Engineering," September 18, 2000, http://www.pafko.com/history/h_whatis.html


Katherine Beggs; Denali Lander; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 31, 2017