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About the Author

Rock-It Science is a non-profit organization dedicated to developing children's enthusiasm for science. We accomplish this by mixing exciting activities, storytelling, and opportunities to make discoveries in much the same way as a professional scientist.

John McChesney presents the lessons in good humor and with some aspect of science as a secret that's presented in a way to peak a child's curiosity.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can enroll your child in Rock-It Science Classes.

Rock-It Science:
Grandma and the Oil Geyser

Grandma and the Oil Geyser

By John McChesney
of Rock-It Science

A lesson on where plastics come from and what they can do.

I. Get Their Attention With Funny Questions

  • What do you suppose would happen if a giant crack opened up in the ground and the earth swallowed up a whole jungle?
  • Would the plants and trees still grow underground?
  • Would gophers come along and eat everything?
  • Would bacteria and mold form on the leafy green stuff like it does on food left in the refrigerator?
  • Would Superman come along and rescue the jungle?
  • Would the whole jungle turn into oil so that we could come along and drill a hole to get it out?

Nobody knows for sure but that's ok. Maybe you will figure this out some day and become famous because you were so smart!

Oil is a liquid, right?

  • Did you know that you can "crack" oil?
  • Did you know that some plastics are made from oil?

Continue onward fearless readers for an adventure:

A bit of silly questioning does wonders to bring children into the world of science. It doesn't matter what they answer or if they even answer at all. We just want them to wonder about their world. We then give them a story that introduces a problem or a mystery for them to solve:

II. Tie Your Theme Into a Great Story

Grandma and the Oil Geyser

Once upon a time Jack and Jill were at home completely bored with television shows and their computer games so they went outside to see what they could find to do. Off in the distance was the volcano with gray smoke and ash at the top and white steam at the bottom where the hot lava flowed into the lake. This was such a common sight to Jack and Jill that they didn't even notice it. Little did they know it would have a role in their day's activities ... but more on that later.

In the shed they discovered two shovels so they started digging a hole. This turned out to be harder than they expected but they kept at it. At the end of the day their hole was 4 feet deep.

The next day they got up at sunrise, went out to a vacant field and made a deal with 250 gophers: Jack and Jill told them they would give the gophers all the carrots they could eat if the gophers would help them with their hole.

The gophers thought this was a great idea so they jumped down into the hole and the dirt began to fly! As the gophers dug, Jack and Jill hoisted the dirt out of the hole with a big bucket on a rope. At the end of this day the hole was 100 feet deep!

When Jack and Jill woke up on the third day, they saw thousands of gophers all lined up to take turns in the hole. They dug so fast that the dirt flying up out of the hole made a pile taller than their house! Suddenly the earth began to rumble and shake and then the hole erupted with a fountain of black oil and gophers shooting high up into the sky! The gophers were kept suspended by the oil for several minutes and then the oil gradually went lower and lower and lower until all the gooey gophers were set gently on the ground.

"Wow, that was really cool!" exclaimed Jill, "but it's going to take more than just a paper towel to clean up this mess."

"Yep," said Jack, "You know, there's flammable oil covering everything in sight, all my gopher buddies are totally gummed up, and mom is going to kill us when she sees this; but luckily, it just can't get any worse than this!"

"Oh Jack," said Jill pointing up in the sky, "you just had to say that didn't you?" Off in the distance Jack saw what Jill was pointing at: a tornado was heading right toward them!

A tornado and a tiny chimney

There was a cow in the tornado, a bicycle with an old lady dressed in black pedaling furiously as a small dog peered out of the wicker basket on the back, a huge black cauldron, and there was even a house spinning around up in the tornado!

The tornado came straight to Jack and Jill's house, sucked up everything, spun it around like crazy, and then set everything right back on the ground sparkling clean and exactly like it was before the eruption of oil.

Then, the house up in the tornado plopped down right in Jack and Jill's back yard. The black cauldron landed about 100 feet away and then all the oil that had been sucked into the cloud fell right into the cauldron.

The door on the house shook, rattled, and then popped open revealing a little old lady wearing tennis shoes — it was Jack and Jill's grandma!

"Hey grandma!" shouted Jack and Jill, "Did you do all that?"

"Whooo, me?" cooed Grandma, "I never do anything, things just seems to happen wherever I am." "What are we going to do with that cauldron?" asked Jack.

"No problem," said Grandma, "whenever you have a cauldron you should just do what anybody would do." With that, grandma rushed into the house and came back out carrying a huge pile of wood and a blow torch. She arranged the wood all around the cauldron and then lit it on fire with the blowtorch.

Before long the huge pot of oil was bubbling, boiling, and creating a long fat trail of smelly black smoke. It wasn't long before a crowd of people gathered, coughing and gasping. Grandma said, "Oh dear, our little experiment is smoking up their town. But never fear, Grandma is here!"

She ran into the house and emerged carrying a 200-foot tall smokestack that she plunked right over the cauldron! Now the smoke was coming out the top of the smokestack making a lazy black trail across the sky. "Grandma, where will that smoke go?" asked Jill.

"Well, Jillikins," said Grandma thoughtfully, "probably nowhere that people want it. But I've got it solved!" Then Grandma hopped, skipped, and jumped back to the house and emerged wearing a black helmet on her head, she had two steel tanks on her back, a welding torch in her hand and, balanced on top of the helmet was a huge steel disk. She climbed clear to the top of the smokestack, slapped the steel disk on top, fired up the welding torch, and welded the disk on top so that not a trace of smoke could come out.

Grandma slid back down, took off all her gear, clapped her hands together and said, "That'll do it!" Now throw some more wood on the fire there Jack and Jill," said Grandma.

After Jack and Jill did this, Jack noticed that the chimney was creaking and groaning, and seemed to be getting fatter!

"Um, Grandma?" queried Jack, "Is the chimney going to explode?"

"Well, now that you mention it, it probably will. But that's no problem!"

Grandma wandered over to the house and came back out with her face painted black, wearing military camouflage clothing, and carrying a machine gun!

Grandma pointed the machine gun at the smokestack and shot holes in it from top to bottom. Flames and smoke erupted from the holes. Then Grandma said "No problem!" and came back from the house with a fire hose and sprayed water all over the smokestack until the flames went out.

How can one geyser produce all these different layers?

Then something strange happened: Liquid started coming out of all of the holes. At the bottom the liquid looked like tar and came out very slowly but the higher the holes were, the clearer and runnier the liquid became. So Jack and Jill ran into Grandma's house and emerged carrying dozens of metal pails. They climbed up the chimney and fastened a pail under each hole to catch the liquid.

The liquid from the top hole worked perfectly for making a car or lawnmower work.

The liquid from the next hole worked in diesel trucks.

The one after that worked in Grandma's oil lamp

Down further the liquid worked in Grandma's furnace

Below that, the liquid started to get fairly thick and worked well to make metal parts slide against each other easily.

The stuff coming out the holes below this became kind of sticky and gooey and smelled like rotten eggs.

"Wow Grandma," said Jill, "We just made all kinds of petroleum products!"

"Yep," said Jack matter-of-factly, "I knew that all along. As soon as I saw the black liquid coming out of the ground I said to myself: 'Self, I bet Grandma is going to show up here and make all kinds of petroleum products!'"

"Ok mister smarty-pants, if you know so much; what is Grandma going to do next?" retorted Jill.

"Well, isn't it obvious?" said Jack, "she'll do something that we don't expect!"

A tornado and a tiny chimney

With nary a word and a twinkle in her eye, Grandma sauntered over to the house and brought out a large black safe, drilled a hole in the top, and then brought out a rivet gun and an oven with a single red hot rivet.

Then Grandma raced up to the very top of the smokestack, poked a hole in it with her super-dupercuts-through-anything pocket knife, put her mouth over the hole, and sucked out an enormous amount of whatever was in there! (Kids, don't even think of trying this at home, even if you do have a gurgling smokestack in your backyard.)

Holding whatever it was in her lungs, Grandma then slid down the chimney, put her mouth over the new hole in the safe and exhaled. When the safe was full, she used the rivet gun and the red hot rivet to seal the hole closed.

Without further ado, Grandma grabbed the safe with both hands, swung it around in circles faster and faster until it was just a blur, and then she let it fly! It went almost out of sight but it was obvious to Jack and Jill where it was going to land... right in the volcano's hot lava!

The safe hit near the top of the volcano and floated on the hot lava. It then went down the side of the mountain, in the river of molten lava, and finally went slid right into the lake.

Jack, Jill, and Grandma all grabbed bicycles and rode over to the lake...

How does the story end?

Without a second thought, Grandma dove into the lake right where the lava was pouring into the water. A minute later she emerged carrying the safe on her head!

Then Grandma carefully spun the combination on the safe and opened the door.

What do you suppose might be inside?


  • Yes, most toys are made of it.
  • Yes, a lot of types of cloth are made out of it.
  • Even bottles for liquids of all sorts are made of it.

Yes, indeed... it was plastic!

Some of the gas from oil wells can be converted into plastic if they get hot enough and if they experience enough pressure. That safe in the hot lava had plenty of both!

Plastics are kind of weird. If we were to take Grandma's plastic, melt it, throw it out on the sidewalk, and quickly run back-and-forth over it with a steam roller; we would have a thin sheet of plastic. But plastic has a memory like an elephant; it knows somehow that it used to be a thick blob and we can prove it in the experiment that we are going to do!

III. The Really Cool Experiment

Shrinky Dinks


  • Plastic trays from cookie packages work best, but any thin plastic like a clear salad container or a cold drink cup having "PS" inside the recycling symbol will work. (PS stands for polystyrene.)
  • A conventional oven (not a microwave oven).
  • Permanent markers of all colors.
  • Hot mitt.
  • Aluminum foil or a cookie sheet.

The Experiment:

Let your child draw all over thin plastic. (Pen marks can usually be removed from tabletops with rubbing alcohol (some colors are harder to get off).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the artwork is finished, set it on the cookie sheet and pop it into the oven and watch what happens through the window! It is amazing to watch the way the polystyrene squirms as it shrinks down to its original size!


If you are making Christmas tree ornaments or necklaces, punch a hole near the edge before the plastic is put in the oven and then use some string to make a loop.


Do not leave the plastic in the oven to go and answer the door, the phone, or anything else so that there is no chance of the plastic melting and drooling onto the heating elements of your oven. (I can tell you from experience that it does burn and the resulting soot is difficult to clean off!)

Keep the oven below 400 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce the plastic smell. The smell from styrene plastic is harmless as far as I can tell from on-line research and its used at even higher temperatures in plastic molding factories where people are exposed to a much more intense smell 8 hours each day.

Conclusion: What's the Point?

Making observations ("What has changed?" or "What is the same?") is the key to scientific discovery. Below are some of the things that a student might observe while doing this lesson:

  • Some plastics shrink and become flat upon heating.
  • The plastic also becomes a lot thicker.
  • The colors I drew become darker.
  • Any holes in the plastic also get smaller.
  • The plastic squirms around as it shrinks.
  • The plastic is soft and floppy when it comes out of the oven.
  • The plastic is very hard when it cools.
  • Some plastics change color when they have been heated.
  • Some plastics get soft but they don't shrink.
  • The thinner plastics seem to shrink more.
  • Some plastics smell different than others.
  • If I leave crumbs on the plastic they show up a lot more after it shrinks.
  • If there are water droplets on the plastic, it comes out of the oven all bumpy.
  • If I put some water in the cup or bowl it won't shrink in that portion.

Feel free to make hints and add experiments as long as your child shows enthusiasm so that they can make more discoveries.

© 2007, Rock-It Science and John McChesney, All Rights Reserved