Exploring your world: Popcorn!

Youth are sure to enjoy these fun and very tasty science activities.

A bowl of popcorn.
Image from Vecteezy.

The Michigan State University Extension science team’s goal is to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy across Michigan. One way we increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world. Enjoy exploring science while you enjoy these popcorn activities.

Do all types of corn make good popcorn? No, popcorn is one of the oldest types of corn and contains a hard endosperm surrounding a small amount of soft moist starch. The best popcorns have a moisture content between 13.5-14 percent. As the cooking temperature rises to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the moisture inside the kernel turns to steam and pressure begins to build. When the shell cannot withstand the pressure any longer, it "POPS!" 

Encourage youth of all ages to conduct experiments and explore popcorn with all five of their senses.

  • Compare popped and unpopped kernels. What do they see and feel?
  • What do they smell when the corn is popping?
  • What do they hear while the kernels are popping?
  • What does the popped popcorn taste like?
  • How much does salt affect the flavor? Does it matter if you use different types of salt?
  • Is popcorn salt different from regular salt? How? Popcorn salt is usually a very fine-grained salt that supposedly sticks to popcorn better. Sometimes it also has colorings or flavorings added to it.
  • Is your popcorn air-popped or oil-popped? Can you make both and see if there is a difference?
  • If your popcorn is oil-popped, does it matter which oil you use? Test different types of oil and find out.
  • How does microwaved popcorn compare to other types? What is added to the ingredients?
  • There are a multitude of different popcorn types. Encourage them to predict which will taste better, sample and discuss their findings. 
    • There are two primary shapes of popped popcorn. Mushroom popcorn is rounder and more uniform. Much of the commercially sold popcorn is this type. Why do you think this is?
    • Butterfly popcorn has “wings” that jut out in various directions. How do you think these shapes affect the popcorn?
    • There are many shapes and colors of popcorn – white, yellow, red, blue, purple and ladyfinger. The color usually refers to the color of the unpopped kernel, not the popped popcorn. Not all brands with the same name of popcorn are the same variety.
  • What is most important to you when buying and eating popcorn? Taste? Texture? Ability to hold toppings? How long it stays fresh? Number of unpopped kernels? The number of hulls that get stuck in your teeth? Try lots of brands and types to find out.
  • Does refrigerating or freezing affect how the popcorn pops or tastes?
  • Does moisture affect the popcorn? Add a small amount of water to the unpopped kernels and give it time to absorb. Then pop the popcorn. Sometimes a high number of unpopped kernels after popping could be because the popcorn is old and has dried out too much.

Youth are sure to enjoy these fun and very tasty activities.

Enjoying hands-on science activities is a wonderful way to spend time with youth! For more information about youth science activities visit the MSU Extension 4-H STEM website and click on the Science Activities and Lesson Plans.

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