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There is certainly something magical about popcorn: you can grow it, pop it, and eat it! This collection of activities does all of the above and also provides interesting history and background on popcorn. Explore the activities in their online format or print the PDF (link found at the end of the activity), which is formatted to print on one front-and-back page and fold into a handout. Perfect for sharing with other educators.
A Brief History of Popcorn
Ancient and New
Popcorn is a “New World” food—it originated in the Americas and was unknown in the Eastern continents until after Columbus’s voyage. But just because it’s called a New World food doesn’t mean it’s very new at all. In fact, the oldest ears of popcorn ever found were discovered in a cave in New Mexico and are thought to be around 4,000 years old. Native tribes from North and South America relied on popcorn as an important food staple but also used it as a decoration. Cortez noted this in 1519 when he came into contact with the Aztecs, who used it to create exquisite decorations like ceremonial headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues.
America Loves Popcorn
In the United States, popcorn has been a beloved but sometimes easily forgotten snack. It was commonplace from the 1890s to the 1930s when street vendors would walk around with steam- or gas-powered poppers. During the Great Depression, popcorn cost only 5 to 10 cents a bag, so it became one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. Its “pop”-ularity exploded! Popcorn’s next comeback came during World War II when sugar was sent overseas for US troops. This meant there wasn’t much sugar left in the states to make candy. As a result, Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual!
Popcorn sales went into a slump during the early 1950s when the television became a common household item. Attendance at movie theaters dropped and with it, popcorn consumption. Before long, however, microwave popcorn (which had been invented in the 1940s) became readily available. Americans soon began eating popcorn at home, and a new relationship between television and popcorn led to a resurgence in consumption that continues even to the present time. In fact, Americans now consume about 17 billion quarts of popcorn each year!
Amazing Kernels of Corn
There is certainly something magical about popcorn. With one tiny seed, so many things are possible. You can grow it, pop it, and eat it!
The Living Necklace for Grades 3-8
Note: You can also find this activity in the lesson plan Inherited Traits in the Living Corn Necklace.
- Purchase a Living Necklace Kit, or gather the following materials:
- Cotton balls, 1 per student
- Small plastic jewelry bags, 1 per student
- Popcorn seeds, 1 per student
- Necklace-length pieces of yarn, 1 per student
- Small containers for water
- Divide students into small groups.
- Provide each group with a container of water and the materials needed for each student to make a "living necklace."
- Use the Living Necklace Tutorial video or simply direct students to make their necklaces as follows:
- Dip a cotton ball in water so that it is thoroughly wet but not dripping. Excess water will cause the seeds not to sprout.
- Place the cotton ball in the small plastic bag.
- Put one popcorn seed on the cotton ball.
- Seal the bag. String the yarn through the hole in the jewelry bag. Tie a know in the end of the string to form a necklace.
- Bags can be hung from tacks on a bulletin board for observation. The seeds should germinate and begin to grow in three to six days.
My Little Seed House for Grades K-2
Note: You can also find this activity in the lesson plan My Little Seed House and Seed Book.
- Gather the following materials:
- Seed House activity sheet, 1 per student
- Popcorn seeds, 4-6 per student
- Cotton balls, 4-6 per student
- Ziploc bags, 1 per student
- Small containers of water
- Tell the students that they will be making "seed houses," and show them a completed model seed house.
- Hand out the Seed House activity sheets, popcorn seeds, Ziploc bags, and cotton balls.
- Instruct students to color and cut out the frames of their seed houses.
- Next they should moisten the cotton balls with water, place them in the plastic bag, and place the popcorn seeds on the cotton balls.
- Make sure the seeds are showing on one side of the bag, close the bag and staple it onto the frame of the seed house so that the seeds show.
- Observe the seeds as they germinate and begin to grow.
- Gather the following materials:
- Safety goggles
- 250 ml Erlenmeyer flask
- Vegetable oil
- Small square of aluminum foil
- Hot plate
- Hot pad
- Paper towels
- Put on safety goggles and apron.
- Add 5 ml (about a teaspoon) of vegetable oil and 30 kernels of popcorn to the flask and then cover the top with a small square of aluminum foil. Poke 10 small holes in the aluminum foil using a toothpick.
- Set up the hot plate and turn the heat to medium high, approximately 350°F. Wait for it to preheat before placing the flask on it.
- Using the hot pad, lift and whirl the container about every 30 seconds to keep it from burning on one side. The corn will take about 5 minutes to pop, but it is important to remain near the popcorn to prevent it from burning. While you wait, you may want to tell students about the history of popcorn or show a slow motion video of popcorn popping (online at Popcorn.org).
- As the popcorn bursts, shake the flask vigorously and often to prevent the corn from sticking to the bottom. When most of the kernels have burst, remove the flask from the heat and place it on the hot pad before the popcorn burns, even if all the kernels haven’t burst yet, to avoid burning the good ones.
- Allow the flask to cool to room temperature and transfer the popcorn to the paper towel. Add salt and enjoy!
- But why does it pop? Explain to students that each kernel of popcorn contains a drop of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. As the kernel heats up, the water expands. At approximately 212°F, the water turns into steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into a super hot gelatinous goop. The kernel continues to heat to approximately 350°F. The pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch (about 3.5 times the average car tire!) before finally bursting the hull open. As it explodes, steam inside the kernel is released. The soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately and forming into the odd shape we know and love. A kernel will swell 40 to 50 times its original size!
- Have students bring in the nutrition labels of their favorite snacks and compare and contrast calories, fat, sugar, and vitamin content. Line the labels up in order of calorie content. Reorganize them in order of sugar content. Repeat with fat content. Overall, which snack is the healthiest?
- Put three cups of air-popped popcorn into a bowl, show it to students, and tell them the calorie content (around 165 calories). Hold up a measuring cup with a stick of melted butter in it and tell students the calorie content (around 810 calories). If you added one whole stick of butter to the popcorn, how many calories would that be in total? Remind students that when adding butter to popcorn, they should be mindful of the calories they are adding. It is possible to turn a healthy snack into just another junk food item.
- Talk about how popcorn can be part of a balanced diet and emphasize why the other food groups are also important. Explain to students that popcorn is a whole grain, meaning it contains the entire grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm. In contrast, a refined grain has been milled to remove the bran and germ which contain much of the dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Popcorn sits in the orange “Grains” group on MyPlate and can help you meet the recommendation to “make half of your grains whole.”
- Share the following popcorn nutrition facts with students:
- The air-popped kind has only 31 calories per cup; oil-popped has only 55 calories per cup. When lightly buttered, popcorn contains about 133 calories per cup.
- It is a whole grain, so it provides energy-producing complex carbohydrates.
- It contains fiber, providing roughage the body needs in the daily diet.
- It has no artificial additives or preservatives and is sugar-free.
- It is ideal for between-meal snacking since it satisfies but doesn’t spoil the appetite.
- Three cups of popcorn equal one serving from the grain group.
File, Map, or Graphic
Utah Agriculture in the Classroom
Lessons Associated with this Resource
- Corn an A-maizing Plant: Food, Fuel, and Plastic
- Inherited Traits in the Living Corn Necklace (Grades 3-5)
- Inherited Traits in the Living Corn Necklace (Grades 6-8)
- Serious Cereal Science
- The Columbian Exchange of Old and New World Foods (Grade 5)
- The Columbian Exchange of Old and New World Foods (Grades 6-8)
- Three Sisters Garden