Materials World Modules

An Inquiry & Design-Based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Program

Food Packaging Module

Students learn about the many functions of food packaging, besides protecting foods, and how food packaging materials affect the environment. Then they design their own environmentally friendly package for delivering a hot baked potato.

By incorporating everyday materials into science lessons, the Materials World Modules (MWM) program at Northwestern University has found the solution to getting students excited about learning science while helping teachers meet national and state education standards.

The modules are easy to organize and inexpensive to run. They can be incorporated into any science class because of the breadth of subjects covered in the Activity and Design Project sections. Each module is a supplemental science unit that takes 1-3 weeks of class time (approximately 10 hours) to complete.

MWM will give students an opportunity to understand the world around them in a way they have never experienced before. The modules promote an awareness of the roles science and technology play in society and guide students to take increased control of their work.

Module At-a-Glance

Module At-a-Glance

Activity 1: Investigating Food Packaging
Students take apart a package of microwave popcorn, identify the purposes of each part of the package, examine the materials from which they are made, and draw conclusions about the package's design and the reasons for the choice of materials used.

Activity 2: Analyzing Food Packaging Materials
Students look for different kinds of food packaging, identify the materials used in the packaging, list the purposes of these materials, analyze the properties of the materials, and form hypotheses about why each material was chosen for its use.

Activity 3: Evaluating the Impact of Food Packaging on the Environment
Students examine several different types of packaging for the same food product. They compare the mass of each package with the amount of food packaged to determine which packaging alternatives produce the least amount of waste.

Activity 4: Researching Food Packaging Materials
Students try to come up with an environmentally friendly response to the question "Paper or plastic?" Students research the manufacture, use, and disposal of paper and plastic grocery bags and draw conclusions about the overall environmental impact of each material. Students write a research report summarizing their findings.

Activity 5: Designing a Protective Package
In Part A, students test and compare the ability of different packaging materials to protect package contents-in this case, a tomato-from a fall. In Part B, students use what they have learned to design, construct, and test a package that protects a tomato, while not exceeding certain mass specifications.

Activity 6: Comparing the Insulating Properties of Packaging Materials
In Part A, students test and compare the insulating properties of different packaging materials. In Part B, students use what they have learned to design, construct, and test an insulating package, while not exceeding certain size specifications.

Design Project 1: Designing a Hot Potato Package
Students design prototypes of a package for a baked potato that will keep the potato above a specified temperature for a specified period of time, protect the potato from physical damage, and meet weight, size, and cost specifications. Students test and evaluate their prototypes and then improve their best package design for another round of prototype testing.

Design Project 2: Designing New Food Packaging
Students design a new type of environmentally friendly food packaging. They can improve existing food packaging or design packaging for a new food product. Students construct, test, evaluate, and redesign prototypes of their packaging to determine the best design.

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Materials World Modules are simple to organize and inexpensive to run. They are designed to be easily incorporated into any middle school science or high school science lab or lecture course. The chart below lists the subjects covered in the Activities and Design Projects sections of this module.

Physics & Physical Science

  • Acceleration
  • Forces
  • Gravity
  • Heat and Heat Transfer
  • Insulation
  • Mass
  • Microwaves
  • Newton's Second Law of Motion
  • Potential and Kinetic Energy
  • Thermal Energy
  • Volume and Capacity

Geology & Earth Science

  • Mining

Language Arts

  • Writing a report
  • Public speaking
  • Describing a Sequence


  • Acids and Bases
  • Bonding
  • Changing States of Matter
  • Heat and Temperature
  • Kinetic Energy of Molecules
  • Polymers
  • Properties of Matter


  • Computer Modeling
  • Formulas
  • Graphing
  • Percentages
  • Rates
  • Ratios
  • Volume
  • Weights and Measurement

Biology and Life Science

  • Biodegradation
  • Decomposers
  • Environmental Issues
  • Microorganisms
  • Plant Hormones
  • Thermoregulatory Adaptations

Technical Education

  • Insulating Materials
  • Microwave Ovens

Social Studies

  • History of Food Preservation
  • Pacaging Technology

Math Teaser

Space Ice Cream

icecreamWhile tooling around space in an orbiter, astronauts are getting used to eating better and more delicious kinds of food. Ice cream has been developed for space travel and is even sold commercially.



  1. How could this ice cream be made and then stored under space travel conditions?
  2. How much weight (and how much packaging) is involved when food is going up into orbit?


Video Clips

Video Clips

Brad Goral and Kate Heroux talk about the Food Packaging Module (7 minutes 34 seconds)
View Youtube video



Environmental Protection Agency
Maintains a wealth of data and information about waste composition, waste management, recycling, and source reduction.

Packaging World
Offers examples of innovative packaging to pique students' interest and provides access to its archives.

Packaging and the Environment
Provides information on packaging, source reduction, resource conservation, and waste prevention to help consumers make informed decisions about packaging and the environment.

Food Packaging Module Intro

@ Materials World Modules