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Sweet Solutions for Science on a Shoestring, Part 1

Heather Haley
Product Developer


Teaching science on a tight budget often requires creative uses of household items. Table sugar, water, and powdered drink mixes (such as Kool-Aid®) are highly versatile. When combined, these ingredients make a “sweet solution” for teaching science on a shoestring budget.

In chemistry, a solution is a type of mixture. The composition of a mixture can be variable or uniform throughout. If the composition of a mixture is variable, it is called heterogeneous. If the composition is uniform, it is called homogeneous. The word “solution” is synonymous with a homogeneous mixture.

Solutions are composed of a solvent and one or more solutes. The solvent is the substance present in the greatest amount. All other components are solutes—substances that dissolve in a solvent. The state of matter of solute and solvent determines the type of solution that is formed.

*Some examples contain additional solutes not identified in this table.

Water is a common solvent used to prepare solutions. By nature of its chemical structure, water is capable of dissolving or dissociating other compounds. Water is a polar molecule: It contains regions of partial positive and negative charge. A positively charged species (atom or ion) will be attracted to the negatively charged end of a water molecule, whereas a negatively charged species will be attracted to the positively charged end of a water molecule. As water molecules move apart, the compound will dissolve or dissociate. When a substance is dissolved in water, an aqueous solution is formed.

The overall composition of a solution can be described both qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitatively, dilute solutions contain very little solute, whereas concentrated solutions contain a lot of solute. There are many different methods for describing the composition of a solution quantitatively: molarity, normality, percent by mass, and percent by volume. These techniques are fully described in Carolina’s Solution Preparation Manual.

The following 2 activities—One in a Million and Colorful Density Column—are creative ways to use solutions of sugar and powdered drink mixes in your science classroom. For a third activity, stay tuned for the next edition of Carolina Tips®.

Activity 1: One in a Million

Topics covered: solution concentration, serial dilution


The One in a Million activity involves taste-testing a prepared solution. Note: Do not use laboratory materials or glassware. All materials should be purchased for consumer use and discarded at the conclusion of the activity. Consider performing the One in a Million activity in the school cafeteria or trading classrooms with a food science teacher for the day. Emphasize that students should not eat, drink, or chew gum during activities performed in their science classroom.

Materials (per student)

  • Presweetened Powdered Drink Mix (Kool-Aid® or similar)*, 8 to 9 g
  • Plastic Spoon
  • Large Cup (10 oz or larger)
  • 6 Small Cups (4 oz or larger)
  • Permanent Marker
  • Tap Water

*Or you can add table sugar to unsweetened drink mix according to instructions printed on the package. Do not add water. Students will add water during the activity.

Student procedure

  1. Use a permanent marker to label the 6 small cups with letters A through F, respectively.
  2. Use a permanent marker to label the large cup “water.”
  3. Fill the large cup with tap water.
  4. To prepare solution A:
    1. Add 1 level spoonful of presweetened powdered drink mix to the small cup labeled “A.”
    2. Use the plastic spoon to transfer 9 spoonfuls of water from the “water” cup to the cup labeled “A.”
    3. Use the plastic spoon to stir the contents of the cup until they are completely dissolved.
  5. To prepare solution B:
    1. Add 1 level spoonful of solution A to the cup labeled “B,” and then rinse off the spoon.
    2. Use the plastic spoon to transfer 9 spoonfuls of water from the “water” cup to the cup labeled “B.”
    3. Use the plastic spoon to stir the contents of the cup until they are completely dissolved.
  6. Prepare solutions in the remaining cups by repeating step 5 using
    1. Solution B and the cup labeled “C.”
    2. Solution C and the cup labeled “D.”
    3. Solution D and the cup labeled “E.”
    4. Solution E and the cup labeled “F.”
  7. Record observations about the intensity of the color in each cup.
  8. Beginning with cup F, taste-test each solution by sipping a small amount of liquid from each cup. Note when you can first discern the sweet taste of the solution in the cup.

Extension activities

  1. Have students determine the concentration of each cup in terms of (volume of solute) / (total volume). Next, ask students to determine which cup represents 1 part per million (ppm), and how many more cups would be required to represent 1 part per billion (ppb).
  2. Measure the mass of a level spoonful of sweetened powdered drink mix. Next, measure the mass of a spoonful of water. Have students determine the concentration of each cup in terms of (mass of solute) / (mass of solution).

Related products

Activity 2: Colorful Density Column

Topics covered: density, solution concentration

Materials (per class)

  • Tap Water, 3 L
  • Long-Handled Spoon
  • Granulated White Sugar, 2-1/2 lb
  • 6 Large Plastic or Glass Containers (500 mL or larger)
  • 6 Colors of Unsweetened Powdered Drink Mix (suggested colors and flavors: red—cherry, orange—orange, yellow—lemonade, green—lemon lime, blue—berry blue, purple—grape)

Materials (per group)

Teacher preparation

  1. The instructions that follow explain how to prepare solutions that will create a multilayered density column. The prepared solutions will be labeled in a way that prevents students from predicting what order they should be placed in the density column.

  1. Label 6 large plastic or glass containers (500 mL or larger) using letters A to F.
  2. Prepare the mass-by-mass percentage of sugar solutions in the table above by mixing the indicated mass of sucrose with 500 mL (500 g) of distilled water in the appropriately labeled container.
  3. Match each package of powdered drink mix to the appropriately labeled container. Add 1 g of the appropriate powdered drink mix to the sugar solution in each container.
  4. Use a long-handled spoon to stir the contents of each container until all of the sugar and powdered drink mix dissolves. Note: It may be difficult to dissolve all sugar in some solutions. You may wish to stir each solution thoroughly, wait 30 minutes, and stir again. Continue stirring once every 30 minutes until all sugar and powdered drink mix dissolves.
  5. (optional) If the solutions will not be used right away, use a cover to seal each container. If necessary, solutions can be stored in covered containers for a week or more.

Student procedure

  1. Place the 10-mL graduated cylinder on the balance, and tare the balance. The balance should now read 0.0 g.
  2. Remove the graduated cylinder from the balance and place it on the lab bench.
  3. Pour 5 mL of Solution A into the 10-mL graduated cylinder. Record the volume to the nearest 0.1 mL.
  4. Place the 10-mL graduated cylinder containing Solution A on the balance. Record the mass of Solution A.
  5. Pour the solution into the waste container. Rinse the graduated cylinder and dry it by tapping it gently on a paper towel.
  6. Repeat the preceding steps, finding the volume and mass of all the remaining solutions.
  7. Calculate the density of each solution by dividing the mass of each liquid by the volume measured.
  8. Based on the densities you calculated in the preceding step, list the solutions in order from most dense to least dense.
  9. Prepare a colored density column in the 25-mL graduated cylinder.
    1. Use the 10-mL graduated cylinder to measure about 5 mL of the solution with the greatest density.
    2. Prepare to pour the solution from the 10-mL graduated cylinder into the 25-mL graduated cylinder. Tilt the 25-mL cylinder and pour the liquid so that it slowly runs down the side.
    3. Repeat steps 9a and 9b with each additional solution, in order of decreasing density.

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