What is the Best (Scientific) Method to Pop Popcorn?

The Kernel

Discovery Experiment 

Learning Objective: Learn and define the steps of the scientific method. Use the scientific method to discover which popcorn method is the best by utilizing the scientific method

Key Terms: food science, popcorn, corn, scientific method, hypothesis

Grade Level: 3-5

Materials

Estimated Time: ~45-60 min, varying times to carry out experiments (allow at least an hour)

Lesson Plan 

The Scientific Method

Introducing the scientific method along with an interactive activity will allow your children to practice using the scientific method in everyday life. Let’s make it fun and interesting by using a tasty snack, popcorn!

What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method is a process in which we identify a problem, gather relevant data, develop a hypothesis from the data, and test the hypothesis. 

It is a way for scientists to study and learn new things about life and the world around us. No matter what topic or area, any scientist can use the scientific method to help ask and answer questions. 

Scientific Method Steps

The scientific method consists of 6 steps.

  1. Observe and ask a question – The scientific method begins with a question about something that you have observed. These questions can start with how, what, when who, which, why, or where

For example, Researcher Jane notices that the popcorn her mom made today tastes different than the batch that her dad made yesterday. Her research question is “Why did the two batches of popcorn taste different?”

Ask your children if there is something that they are curious about or would like an answer to. Have them explore the different types of questions (how, what, when, who, which, why, or where). 

  1. Do background research – Rather than starting from scratch, it’s important to do some research beforehand to help create an educated guess on the subject. 

For background research, Jane asks her mom “How did you make the popcorn today?” and then she asks her dad, “How did you make the popcorn yesterday?”. Researcher Jane found out that her dad cooked the popcorn on the stove and her mom cooked the popcorn in the microwave. Now researcher Jane has some background information. 

Discuss with your children how they could go about gathering background information. Who can they ask questions? Where are some other places to get information (i.e. library, internet, experts…)?

  1. Create a hypothesis (A hypothesis is a guess you make based on information you already know!) – Now, based on the background information, it is time to create a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess about the answer to your research question. The goal of a hypothesis is that it can be tested in an attempt to answer your research questions. A good hypothesis can be stated this way:

“If______[I do this]____, then______[this]_____ will happen.”

It is important that the “this” or the prediction is easy to measure. 

Researcher Jane hypothesizes that “If I cook popcorn on the stove, then it produces a better tasting popcorn.”

Go through a few examples of what a hypothesis is and some examples. Especially if this is a new concept, spend some time at this step so that your children can understand that the point isn’t for the hypothesis to BE the right answer, the point is that the hypothesis helps them to DISCOVER the right answer!

  1. Experiment or test your hypothesis – Now it’s time to test your hypothesis! Experiments should test whether the prediction is actually true, thus supporting your hypothesis or not.

Often the end of one experiment leads scientists to the next experiment by giving them information that they didn’t have before!

Researcher Jane is going to cook one batch of popcorn on the stove like her dad and another batch of popcorn in the microwave like her mom. From there she will do a taste test to see if the popcorn tastes better when it is cooked on the stove or in the microwave. 

BUT WAIT!

It is very important that the experiment conducted is a fair test. If not, then the experiment may be biased. Bias is giving preference to one idea or thing based on other factors. 

For example, if researcher Jane’ uses plain popcorn on the stove but a buttered popcorn in the microwave, then the microwave popcorn might taste better because there is another variable involved, flavor.  Based on her hypothesis, it’s important to keep everything the same other than the cooking method. Jane needs to use plain popcorn for both methods.

Additionally, Jane needs to make sure that the taste test isn’t biased.  What if Jane’s Dad LOVES popcorn made on a stove… He might be likely to give any popcorn that he knows was made on a stove higher marks.  So, the taste test needs to be blind so that the tasters don’t know which batch of popcorn they are tasting.

Discuss with the class other ways that there could be bias (i.e. maybe researcher Jane prefers salty foods). 

During an experiment, it is important to collect measurements in order to analyze them after the experiment. 

Determine with the children what are good measurements for research Jane to collect to determine which method is best (i.e. crunchiness, are all kernels popped, perceived taste).

  1. Analyze or study the test results – Once the experiment is complete, it’s important to collect the measurements and analyze them to determine if they support the hypothesis or not. 

Researcher Jane compared the measurements between the two different methods of popping popcorn.

MeasurementStove Top Popcorn Microwave Popcorn
Crunchiness5/53/5
Taste4/54/5
Leftover popcorn kernels10 kernels unpopped12 kernels unpopped
  1. Present a conclusion – this is the time to talk about the hypothesis, the experiment, results, and conclusion. Does the data support or not support the original hypothesis?

Researcher Jane found that both of the popcorn popping methods tasted the same, however, the stovetop popcorn made the popcorn more crunchy and popped more of the kernels. She concludes that she wants a more crunchy popcorn then she should use the stovetop method. 

  1. Retest (by other scientists or peers) – comparing the results of the experiment with another scientist to see if they came up with a similar conclusion. 

This can be used in a classroom setting by splitting the children into groups, then the different groups can compare results. 

Check out this video to help engage your students in learning about the scientific method

The History of the Scientific Method

The scientific method was not discovered by one person in particular but has been a process that has evolved with scientists and philosophers over the centuries. There are still scientific papers today that present different viewpoints on how exactly the scientific method should be conducted, however, the steps mentioned above present the most common framework.

Scientists such as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Galileo have contributed to the development of the scientific method. They have discussed and shared how they used observations, experiments, and the development of hypotheses to help determine if their guess was correct. 

(image of Isaac Newton)

While you don’t have to go into immense detail about the history of the scientific method, it is a great opportunity to introduce well-known scientists that help revolutionize how we conduct science and research today. 

Scientific Method for Younger Kids

The scientific method can be a lot for younger children. So it is okay to modify the scientific method to match the age group of the children. This can prevent frustration or boredom and simply get them excited about how awesome science can be! 

If you are working with younger children, you can simply keep the six steps of the scientific method in the back of your mind for guidance. Instead, ask the following questions to the children. 

  • What do they think will happen?
  • What is happening during the experiment?
  • What actually happened compared to what they thought would happen? 

This way you can still cover the steps of the scientific method but also keep it fun, simple, and engaging. Kids always have burning questions, so guiding them in this manner can help get them started with the scientific method.

Experiment 

Below are the steps used to compare different methods of popping popcorn similar to Researcher Jane. Using the experiment in conjunction with the scientific method can help kids learn how to use it in their everyday life. 

Directions 

  1. Introduce the experiment and have the children develop their own hypotheses. 
  2. Pop popcorn kernel on the stove
    1. In a large pan over medium heat, add about 2 tbsp oil and 2 popcorn kernels to test when the pan is hot enough.
    2. Cover the pot and wait for the 2 test kernels to pop, which might take a few minutes.
    3. Once the test kernels pop, pour ½ cup of kernels into the pan and cover the pan again. Give the pot a little shimmy to distribute the kernels evenly. 
    4. Once the kernels start popping, tip the lid just a touch to allow steam to escape.
    5. Continue cooking until the popping sound slows to about one pop per every few seconds. 
    6. Allow to cool and then pour into mini cups for test tasting.
  3. Pop popcorn kernels in a paper bag in the microwave
    1. Place ½ cup of popcorn kernels in a bowl. 
    2. Place about 1 tsp of oil in a bowl. Mix the kernels with the oil until evenly coated.
    3. Pour the coated kernels into a brown paper bag. Fold the top of the bag over twice to seal the ingredients.
    4. Cook in the microwave at full power for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, or until you hear pauses of about 2 seconds between pops.
    5. Carefully open the bag to avoid steam, and pour it into mini cups for test tasting. 
  4. Pop microwaveable popcorn in the microwave. Note: use plain popcorn.
    1. Microwave popcorn as instructed on the microwavable popcorn package. 
    2. Carefully open the bag to avoid steam, and pour it into mini cups for test tasting. 
  5. Label the mini cups with a letter that corresponds to one of the three popcorn popping methods. 
  6. Place the appropriate popcorn in the labeled mini cup.
  7. Have the kids blind taste test each popcorn and have them score the popcorn.

If you are working with older kids, they can create their own form of measurement to score the popcorn. There is a sample table below. 

MeasurementPopcorn APopcorn BPopcorn C
Crunchiness
Taste
Leftover popcorn kernels
  1. Now tell the kids which popcorn was associated with which popcorn cooking method. Having them view their results to see which popcorn cooking method was best compared to their hypothesis. 

You can expand on the discussion on how what the kids would want to change about the experiment or if they would want to add in a variable such as flavors. 

Exploratory Ideas

We sure hope you and your children had fun with this experiment! This fun popcorn experiment allows kids to take a deep dive experience into using the scientific method

Here are a couple of ideas of how you could take this experiment one step further. 

  • Compare different flavors of popcorn. Test if different flavors and toppings make a difference on other variables such as crunchiness and taste.
  • Test different name brands of microwaveable popcorn. This is a great option to explore different popcorn brands and minimize the need for a stovetop to cook popcorn. 

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