Especially JCE: November 2017

JCE November 2017 cover

People tie dye cloth. People study chemistry. What makes putting the two things together such a popular activity in chemistry classrooms and science clubs? Recently, a photo showcasing American Chemical Society (ACS) ChemClub students in their completed shirts from a National Chemistry Week tie-dye event popped up in my Twitter feed. Others appear in social media regularly.


I have done it myself as a year-end activity with an Advanced Placement Chemistry class after the pressure of the exam was over. I have done it with a homeschool chemistry club in a chilly garage to dye white baby onesies to donate to a local pregnancy center. I have done it with my sister-in-law with cotton squares as a quilting experiment. I have seen socks, lab coats, and goggles that have been tie dyed. There’s a lot of tie dye activity taking place within chemistry, but often it is just a stand-alone fun activity. A more complete integration of the chemistry learning that can accompany it can be more challenging and is often missing.

The November 2017 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education offers a potential solution, particularly for high school and undergraduate level students. Tie-Dye! An Engaging Activity To Introduce Polymers and Polymerization to Beginning Chemistry Students (available to JCE subscribers) highlights the polymer roots of tie dye with a three-part activity. The article is part of a special JCE issue—Polymer Concepts Across the Curriculum. The activity begins with students each sketching and building models of β-D-glucose, then combining them with another student’s model to form a dimer, then tetramer, finally to a macromolecular polymer of cellulose.

From there, the activity takes the usual path to the “tie” and the “dye.” I like the connection of such a common fabric, cotton, to polymers. When I think of polymers, my mind automatically jumps to my blue recycling bin, with its plastic yogurt containers and milk jugs. The natural polymer examples, such as the cellulose, wool, and silk mentioned in the article, are good reminders of the variety of polymers in our world. For the dyeing step, the author provides a tip to use dishpans and plastic draining racks, which are saved from year to year. The dye station also uses plastic pipettes, although I have found plastic squeeze bottles an easy (although potentially less precise) way to thoroughly soak the fabric. It wraps up with a visit to the primary literature. Bonneau’s The Chemistry of Fabric Reactive Dyes from JCE (available to subscribers) is only two pages long and contains several figures of the reactions that occur during tie dyeing. Overall, based on feedback, students appreciated the chance to get a more visual representation of polymer formation using the model kits, and to have an opportunity to read through an accessible example from the literature.

What have you done to connect tie dyeing more directly to your curriculum? What tips and tricks have you developed for a smooth activity?

More from the November 2017 Issue


Another article from this special issue of JCE, Polymer Day: Outreach Experiments for High School Students is open access for readers without a subscription through the AuthorChoice program. The authors describe the objectives, outcomes and other details about hands-on activities that are part of an annual high school level Polymer Day at the University of Minnesota. The supporting information link will be of special interest to instructors that wish to duplicate any or all of the activities. 


Don’t miss the rest of this month’s special issue on polymer chemistry. Mary Saecker’s post JCE 94.11 November 2017 Issue Highlights is a super convenient way to browse through the collection of demonstrations, articles, lab experiments, and commentaries. They can spark one or more ways for you to weave polymers into what you already cover in your courses.



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