Halloween has come and gone, but piles of candy remain. You have two options: Eat it all and risk a serious sugar coma, or get seriously creative with some candy-themed science.
We asked employees at various science museums what experiments they like to do with leftover candy. Get crackin'.
"Your sense of taste is actually really limited," explains Julie Yu, senior scientist and director of the Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. A lot of what we perceive as flavor comes from smell, because our tongue can only taste a few things: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (and fat). You can test this by plugging your nose, putting candy in your mouth, and unplugging your nose. Then, see if the flavor changes.
You can test foods for starch using ingredients from a drug store, according to Debra Bailey, co-coordinator of the Micro World Investigate Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Just crush up a candy and mix it into water. Then, add a few drops of the solution into a cup of iodine (yes, the antiseptic). If it changes from amber to black, you've got starch!
Bailey says you can also test for Vitamin C, glucose, and proteins with paper indicator strips for sale on Amazon.
Ever wonder how many different dyes are used to color Skittles? Well, OK, me neither. But now I really want to know, and Kelly Thornton, youth and family programs manager at the Pacific Science Center, says it's not too hard to find out. You need candy, a coffee filter, a pencil, aluminum foil, salt, water, toothpicks and cups.
The salty water will pull the dye up the paper with capillary action. Different dye molecules will move different distances, so the colors will separate. If multiple dyes color one Skittle (or M&M, or Canadian Smartie), you'll know!
Rebecca Reilly likes to mutilate her candy: "Cut it up, melt it, dissolve it, test the acidity ... things like that."
She's the food science coordinator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and her favorite candy experiments are open-ended ones. "One great thing about candy is it's full of things you wouldn't expect, which makes it great for science experiments! It reacts in really strange ways," she says.
Reilly shared some of her favorite things to do with candy, and a bit about what those things can teach you:
Have you ever noticed that chocolate sprinkles look like mouse poop? Well, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has. Megan Chesser, a teacher education specialist, likes to hide animal scat (yes, poop) in schoolyards. She leads teachers on a scavenger hunt, and dares them to make observations about the scat. They break it open to see what's inside and smell it.
"Finally, I say, 'You know what's a great way to tell what this is made of? Eating it.' And then I pop it into my mouth," says Chesser. The secret is, it's chocolate, mashed up to look like it came from a raccoon.
Chesser takes the teachers back to a classroom to make edible scat of their own. They mold tootsie rolls into different shapes for different animals. To make omnivore poop, like a bear has, she mixes in nuts and berries. For bird and reptile scat, Chesser suggests rolling tootsie rolls in powdered sugar to get that authentic patina. For carnivores, add some shredded wheat for hair. Chesser says it's a great way to get kids thinking about food webs.
Some candies don't need much work. Hershey's Kisses look like elk scat, and if you chop up chocolate sprinkles it looks like cockroach poop (or "frass," which Chesser delightedly informed me is the technical name for arthropod poop.)
For larger animals, "leftover brownies from a Halloween party are great to mold into tubular scat," says Chesser. "A box of brownie mix goes a long way."
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