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Exploring Acid Dyeing with Eggs and Ties: A Student Science Success Story

This student's school science fair project yielded a few dozen eggs sporting the prints of various recycled ties salvaged from closets and secondhand stores. These eggs are not ones to eat, but for this young scientist, egg dyeing brought the pH scale to life and has given him new chemistry questions to explore as well as a solid introduction to the scientific method!

Student tie dye eggs chemistry science project / Jeffery

Above: Jeffery, wearing an awesome and very appropriate "egg" tie at the science fair. "Isn't my egg tie cool? I found it at the Goodwill when I was looking for ties to use," says Jeffery. "It has been my good luck tie. I'm wearing it to the state competition too!!"

Many families dye eggs each year for Easter, and whether they use packaged dye kits from the grocery store or try their luck with a variety of natural dyes, chances are good their dyeing method calls for the addition of some ratio of vinegar to water. General folk wisdom (and countless PAAS dye boxes) suggests that the pH of vinegar will help you obtain the most vibrant dye colors when using food color tablets to dye eggs.

According to the box, if you don't add vinegar to your soaking solution, you may end up with pale eggs, not the brightly colored ones shown on the box. This may be true when using boxed tablets, but according to Jeffery Austin, a fourth grade student in North Carolina, adding an acid to the recipe may not be a good thing if you are dyeing eggs with the fancy, upcycle, silk tie approach that has made the home and garden, parenting, and even Science Buddies rounds in recent years.


Dyed and Deviled

Jeffery and his family are tried and true egg dyers. He and his four siblings dye eggs each year, and then his mom makes deviled eggs. "It's a family tradition," Jeffery says. "Deviled eggs are my favorite," he adds.

This year, their egg dyeing tradition is getting a bit of a new-age twist. In addition to their regular dyed eggs, the ones they will later eat deviled, Jeffery's family will also be silk tie dyeing eggs, partly because it is very cool to take an old silk tie and transfer the pattern to a hard-boiled egg, and partly because Jeffery has spent a lot of time this year investigating the chemistry behind the process!


A New Wave of Egg Dyeing

The Dye Eggs Using Silk Ties for Egg-cellent Colors science project was a new addition to the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas last year, one that turns a popular trend in egg dyeing into a hands-on chemistry experiment for students. At the heart of the project is a simple question: does heat make a difference in how the process works?

Jeffery discovered the chemistry project while looking for a topic for his 4th grade science fair, and thought it looked cool. The pH scale hasn't been covered yet in his science class, but he said it appears in a few of the books he has, and he was particularly intrigued by the discussion of acid dyes in the project.

Jeffery ran through the basic project procedure quickly. He even put the question of heat in the process of using silk ties to tie dye eggs to the test in other ways out of curiosity as he tried to isolate and examine different variables at work in transferring tie designs to the eggs. He quickly made determinations about what worked and what didn't in terms of heat, but what really caught his interest was a line in the project about the use of vinegar in the dyeing process.

"When using acid dyes, acids are needed for the silk ties to be dyed, and acids are needed for the eggs to be dyed. So the eggs are soaked with vinegar during the dyeing process in order to help the acid dyes transfer their color from the silk ties to the eggshells."

Based on the information about acid dyes, the role of vinegar as an aid to the chemical reaction that occurs during the dyeing, and the reality that there are many other acids that fall in different places on the pH scale, Jeffery veered off on his own and designed a new variation on the experiment. If the pH of vinegar is good for acid dyeing eggs, is an even more acidic solution even better?

Jeffery pulled together his science fair project, testing different agents, including vinegar, to see how different acids affect the way silk tie patterns transfer to eggs. The hardest part of the project, says Jeffery, was waiting for the results of each egg dyeing experiment. It took a lot of patience, says Jeffery. "It was hard to wait 20 minutes to cook each egg. What was behind the cloth? There were so many possibilities and thoughts in my head as to whether the egg would be darker or lighter. I was so excited to see what the result was."


A Cracked Science Project

After all the waiting, Jeffery's eggs did not turn out the way he expected. Puzzled, he did a second round of egg dyeing, which yielded the same results. It was a scientific setback.

"I was so upset," recalls Jeffery of his disappointment with the outcome of his testing. The eggs had all taken on some patterning from the ties, but the ones that ended up darkest were not the ones he had predicted.

"I didn't even want to enter my project into the science fair!"

Thankfully, Jeffery's parents had excellent (or egg-cellent, in this case) advice for him. "My parents told me that things like that happen to scientists all of the time and that sometimes being wrong was just as important as being right."

samples from tie dye eggs chemistry science experiment

Important Lesson for Student Scientists

Students do not always find that their hypothesis is supported by their testing, and this is okay! The goal of doing a hands-on experiment is not, in fact, to prove a hypothesis to be correct. Instead, the goal is to learn something by following the steps of the scientific method (or engineering design process), experimenting, gathering data, analyzing the data, and then drawing conclusions. Discoveries are often made when something doesn't work out as expected!

Jeffery entered and won his school science fair. He then moved on to earn a bronze prize at the district fair, a third place award at the regional fair, and the chance to present his project at this year's North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair.


New Questions to Explore

Jeffery's hypothesis about the role of an acid in tie dyeing eggs didn't pan out, but his experiment opened up new questions for him--and for Science Buddies! Jeffery was especially disappointed with his results because he based his experiment on information in the Science Buddies project. The Science Buddies procedure focuses on the variable of heat. But Jeffery's experience with acids in the process raises interesting questions about other variables.

Not tired of egg dyeing yet, Jeffery is working with Science Buddies to do some additional testing and a new, controlled experiment focused on acid dyeing to put his findings to a next level of testing.

This year, when his family dyes eggs, there will be a few that are truly "tie" dyed. "We are definitely going to dye eggs using ties this year, but my mom says we can only use one tie each," says Jeffery. After a science season of Jeffery's ongoing egg dyeing experiments, his mom is opting in favor of the family's favorite deviled eggs. "You can't eat the eggs afterward because the acid dye from the ties can make you sick if you eat them," explains Jeffery.

The special tie dyed eggs are for looks only, but the whole experience has given Jeffery a chance to dabble in chemistry well beyond the science his fourth grade class has been exploring.

When not dyeing eggs, Jeffery enjoys Cub Scouts, participating on the NC Science Olympiad team, and playing Minecraft. He hopes to someday be a neurologist. "I just learned that Alzheimer's is the third leading cause of death in NC and the 6th in the nation," says Jeffery. "Why is it higher here in NC? I would like to find out!"

We can't wait to hear about his science experiment next year!

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Your Science!
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