BHS AP Chemistry class learns to make soap from scratch

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Students at BHS were given a unique opportunity over the last month, learning a useful skill: how to make soap.

Around five weeks ago, students in Kyle Kelley’s AP chemistry class got into a discussion about how soap works. According to Kelley, this led to them deciding to make soap themselves, exploring the chemistry involved along the way. The first step: acquiring the necessary raw materials.

“I made the decision to start from scratch and Jones Country Meats was kind enough to donate some cuttings from deer season that had fat and a few bits of pork trimmings to supplement,” Kelley said. After acquiring the fatty meat, the students next rendered it into tallow. “ For anyone that has done this before, I’m sure you can imagine what it was like getting a group of teenagers through this process!”

The class then looked into how civilizations in history would have come up with the necessary sodium or potassium hydroxide for the saponification process, before deciding to make their own solutions from lab-grade sodium hydroxide. According to Kelley, this “allowed a separate lab of mixing solutions with specific molarities (a measure of concentration).”

Next came the trial and error process of mixing the ingredients, along with scented oils, to make soap. Some of the results were too brittle, while some bars were drying to the skin. One student, Calianna Holt, recommended bringing in Mrs. Scherry Bradford, who makes soap in her free time, to help them fix their mistakes. With her help, each student went home with their own bar of soap.

“I feel they enjoyed it, and loved that they were able to take home a bar of soap when we were done,” Kelley said. “There was some real chemistry and math in the process, so those highly motivated AP students still felt their time was being used well while working through the process for all of our first time.”

The chemistry teacher does plan to continue doing this lab in the future, although he stipulated that he would probably just buy lard and skip the rendering step next time.

“Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School bus really boiled down the essence of science with her quote, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”, and I try to incorporate that as often as possible in the form of inquiry labs and hands-on exploration of concepts,” Kelley said. “Students often get to high school with a fear of failure, which turns into a fear of trying. Even if they never balance a chemical equation again in their life, I hope they stay curious, keep exploring, and never stop learning!”