Smart Consumers

You can help students cut through the hype and find out for themselves which brands are best by becoming consumer scientists.

By Jennifer Sinsel


smart consumer lessons

“The quilted, quicker-picker-upper.”  “Dirt goes, color stays.”  “Better ingredients, better pizza.”  Don’t get mad, get Glad!”  These are all examples of the messages kids are bombarded with every time they sit down in front of the television.  Children make decisions every day based on effective advertising campaigns. This type of media advertising leads them to make choices on everything from the shoes they wear to the cereal they eat. While teachers aren’t able to control how much time our students spend sitting in front of the “tube”, we can use the advertisements on television to spark some scientific inquiry in our classrooms.

When introducing the scientific process, I often show various clips of popular commercials that I have downloaded from YouTube.  As a group, we discuss the claims made by the makers of these products, and talk about how we know whether or not these claims are true. I lead the students toward the idea of conducting a scientific investigation to determine which brand of a certain product is “best” based on whatever parameters are important when buying that product (i.e., absorbency, strength, how long it lasts, etc. . .).

There are many products that can be tested, but I’ve found that testing the strength of wet paper towels works well because they are fairly inexpensive, and most children can relate to using them. In groups, students discuss how to test the strength of a paper towel when it’s wet using water, graduated cylinders (or measuring cups), and fishing weights. Most groups decide to pour a certain amount of water on each towel (it’s important to keep the amount the same so the experiment is fair), and place weights on the towel until it breaks.  Interesting discussions will ensue as you ask students to make sure the experiment is fair to each brand. Should the weights be placed intermittently, or with a certain amount of time between each one? Should the towels be cut to the same size? What should we do if one of the towels gets a few drops of water on it before we pour on the water for the investigation?  Thinking about questions like these helps develop scientific thinking. 

Once students are comfortable with the science skills necessary to conduct these types of investigations, they can choose their own products to test.  Examples include:

  • Which brand of battery lasts longest?
  • Which brand of tissue is most absorbent?
  • Which brand of trash bag is strongest?
  • Which brand of adhesive bandage is strongest

Math and language arts connections abound when doing consumer science investigations.  Students should always do multiple trials, and the results can be averaged and graphed.  Student scientists will also utilize measurement skills when determining volume of water and the size of various products. Depending on the age and ability levels of your students, they can also figure out the cost per unit of each brand by (in the case of paper towels) dividing the price of the roll by the number of sheets in a roll. For a language arts tie-in, students could write a "Consumer Reports" article for a class magazine, or a lab report to analyze their data. They could also create a Powerpoint presentation to share with the rest of the class or school. For more ideas on using consumer science to teach science process skills, check out the following lesson plans.

Consumer Science Lessons:

Consumer Science Experiment Ideas

In this lesson students come up with ideas for science fair projects and experiments. They use a basic set of ideas to come up with their own unique projects.

Operation Saggy, Baggy Diapers

This lesson has students do a generic vs. brand name comparison. They discuss the features and performance of certain brands, and decide whether the price and quality is worth it based on the features, performance, durability, and cost.

Ball Bounce Experiment

In this lesson students compare the bouncing ability of various balls. They do experiments to see which one bounces higher and longer. They then graph their results and answer questions.

The Claim Game 

This lesson has students decide whether product claims are valid. They become members of the consumer protection agency, and work to prove whether a product lives up to its hype.

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel