Which Brand of Microwave Popcorn Pops the Fastest?

The Kernel

Discovery Experiment 

Learning Objective: To determine which brand of popcorn pops the fastest, biggest, pops more popcorn and has fewer unpopped kernels. 

Key Terms: Science, Popcorn, Scientific Method, Food Science

Grade Level: 5-8

Materials

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Estimated Time: Approximately 30-45 min

Lesson Plan 

The Evolution of Popcorn 

Popcorn has become a beloved snack of the U.S. as  Americans consume over 13 billion quarts of popcorn a year. That’s the equivalent of 42 quarts of popcorn a year per person.

Nowadays popcorn is enjoyed in a wide variety of flavors at the movie threats or from the luxury of our homes – thanks to microwaveable popcorn. 

Microwavable popcorn has only been around since the 1980s. Before then popcorn was cooked either on the stove or at the movie theaters with the use of large popcorn machines. 

Who Invented Popcorn 

Popcorn has been carbon-dated to be about 5,000 years old. There are even signs of popcorn decorated on urns in Mexico from 300 A.D. and fossil samples have been collected from different parts of China. Since, popcorn has popped up throughout the years in different areas of Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, and North America.

Indigenous people across North America were familiar with popping popcorn and they exposed the beloved snack to early American settlers. Soon, popcorn became a staple snack for America, and still is to this day.

Until the late 1800’s, popcorn was popped on the stove or fireplace with butter, seasoned with salt or sugar. Sometimes it was even consumed with milk, like a cereal.

We can’t quite pinpoint who invented popcorn itself, but we do know it has been popping for a LONG time!. 

The Popcorn Machine

It wasn’t until 1875 that the first commercial popcorn machine was made by a man named Charles Cretors. Charles redesigned the beloved peanut roaster machine to mass-produce popcorn. What made the popcorn machine unique, is that it allows for the popcorn to be evenly heated to create a uniform pop with every single batch.

With the popcorn machine, Charles revolutionized the start of the popcorn industry. His company currently still resides in Wood Dale, Illinois named C. Cretors & Company. 

By the early 1900s, popcorn machines were redesigned so that you could easily add butter, salt, or sugar. Charles even attached the machine to a wagon to easily be drawn by a horse. Popcorn became the staple snack as vendors filled the streets anytime there was a festival, sporting event, or a crowd of any kind.

The Movies to Microwaves

Then in the 1920’s, movie theaters were popping up all across the country. Originally the theaters banned such snacks in hopes to keep the velvet rugs fresh and clean. 

As the Great Depression swept the country, movie theaters were trying to stay afloat. So they started to bring in vendors to add snacks and beverages into their revenue. Popcorn was already a cheap snack at 10 cents per bag, so theaters were able to beef up popcorn prices between 800%-1,500% of wholesale cost. 

Theaters are still known to this day for their heavy popcorn prices, but that buttery smell of fresh popcorn is still irresistible! 

In the mid-1940s a scientist named Percy Spencer created the first microwave. He used popcorn as a primary test subject for many of his original experiments. Microwaves were not a common household appliance until the 1980s.

Percy Spencer and his company actually copyrighted the idea for microwavable popcorn in 1947. General Mills would later come along to perfect the idea. 

Orville Redenbacher is now the most notable name associated with microwaveable popcorn. 

The Fall of Microwaveable Popcorn 

Microwave popcorn was the go-snack up until the turn of the new millennium. Now, most homes probably still have a box of microwavable popcorn, but it’s more of something that you hide in the back of the pantry for a spontaneous movie night or if you run out of other snacks.  

Pre-popped popcorn companies have been able to invent new flavors or marketing strategies to where it is now the preferred option over microwave popcorn. 

Additionally, microwave popcorn may not be considered as fresh and tasty as pre-popped popcorn. In order for the butter and oils to stay shelf-stable for long periods of time, companies have to add additional ingredients that may not be the best for our health if consumed regularly. 

Create a discussion with the children about their thoughts on microwave popcorn. Do they enjoy it? How often do they consume it? Do they have a preferred name brand?

How Microwave Popcorn Works 

Microwave popcorn is contained in a 2 layered paper bag. The outer layer keeps oil from leaking out of the bag while preventing additional moisture and oxygen from entering the bag and spoiling the popcorn.

The second, inner layer is a simple paper lining that is coated with extra flavor, so when the kernels pop and hits the side of the bag, it gets coated. 

The microwave releases energy that makes the water molecules inside vibrate back and forth and heat up, that heat causes the kernels begin to heat up, creating steam and pressure inside the kernel. When the pressure gets too great, the kernel explodes. 

The microwaveable bag helps trap additional steam and moisture to help the popcorn pop more quickly. 

Note: a discussion can be created on the nutritional implication of microwave popcorn compared to fresh popcorn. Specifically the use of hydrogenating oils within the diet.  

Experiment 

Below are directions on how to conduct an experiment to test the time, volume, number of unpopped kernels, and size of different brands of microwave popcorn. 

Directions 

  1. Draw a data chart to record the results that include: time, volume, number of unpopped kernels, and size. The example is provided below.
VariablesTrial 1Trial 2Trial 3Average
Popcorn A
Time
Volume
# unpopped kernels
Size
Popcorn B
Time
Volume
# unpopped kernels
Size
Popcorn C
Time
Volume
# unpopped kernels
Size

Additionally, you can have the children make a hypothesis as to which one they think will score the highest and why. Providing an opportunity for the children to use the scientific method

  1. To ensure cooking temperatures are constant between all popcorn kernels, preheat the microwave oven. Do this by placing a cup of water inside the microwave and heating it for 1 minute. Carefully remove the popcorn. 
  2. Place one bag of popcorn into the microwave. Set the microwave to 5 minutes and press start. 
  3. Stop the microwave when the popcorn popping slows to 2-3 seconds between each pop. 
  4. Record how much time it took to reach the stopping point of 2-3 seconds between each pop. 
  5. Carefully open and empty the popcorn into the 2-quart measuring cup. Measure the amount and record the volume.
  6. Pour the popcorn onto the cooking sheet. Separate the popped and unpopped kernels. Record the number of unpopped kernels
  7. Using the ruler, measure the size of 3 different popped popcorn kernels and record the average size
  8. Repeat steps 3-8 with the other 2 bags from Popcorn A.
  9. Repeat steps 3-8 with all 3 bags from Popcorn B.
  10. Repeat steps 3-8 with all 3 bags from Popcorn C.
  11. Take the average of the three tests for each popcorn and compare the observations. 

You can introduce the topic of random variation and how that was reduced by repeating the test three times. The idea of a random variation will help explain why retesting an experiment is an important part of the scientific method. 

If you have enough children (and age-appropriate), you can split the class into groups so that they can compare their results and conclusions with each other. 

Exploratory Ideas

Here are a couple of ideas of how you can expand on the experiment and introduce new scientific concepts.  

  • Discuss the possibility as to why one brand of popcorn is different from the other (i.e. looking at the ingredients label or type of kernel used). 
  • Have the children open up a bag of microwave popcorn so they can see what the inside of the bag looks like. 
  • Compare microwave popcorn to using fresh kernels in a popcorn popper and paper bag. See if the children can taste the differences between fresh kernels and the use of chemicals to create shelf-stable kernels. 

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