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How to use an onion for your osmosis lab

I’m excited to share with you an EASY PEASY way for students to see osmosis in plant cells! In the past, I always used elodea leaves for this lab. Elodea can be hard to find at pet stores and is a little temperamental to keep alive. This year I decided to use onion skin from a purple onion and we got awesome results!
I used this lab BEFORE I taught any vocabulary such as osmosis, equilibrium, hypertonic, hypotonic, or isotonic. I wanted students to visually see what happens to cells in fresh water vs. salt water before I threw any vocabulary at them. Students were really excited to see the cells change within a matter of 60 seconds. Here are a few tips when doing this lab for the first time:

1. You cannot use the dry layers of the onion skin. You need to use the very top of the purple fleshy layer. It can be a little bit tricky to get a specimen that is thin enough, so I decided to do it myself and hand each kid a piece. I took metal tweezers, gently pushed them under the purple layer, and slid the tweezers out so a small flap of onion skin was loose. I peeled it off, handed it to each kid, and they set up their own wet mounts. No dye needed!

2. Have students make drawings using fresh water first. After they finished their drawing, they switched to salt water. To do this they do not need a new piece of onion, just leave it directly on the slide. Add a drop or two of salt water directly to the slide, no need to pre-soak the onion. Make sure your salt water solution is pretty saturated.
3. Tell students to wait at least 2 minutes before drawing the salt water image, because sometimes it takes a little time for the cytoplasm to shrivel up. Below are images of the onion cells in fresh water (left) and salt water (right) on 100x magnification. We had a discussion on whether or not the cell wall shriveled as well. Students automatically said yes, because the cell wall is almost transparent and harder to see. Once I told them to switch to high power (400x) they were able to see the cell wall more clearly and realize that the cell walls were still intact, while the membrane and cytoplasm shriveled.

Osmosis Tonicity worksheet from Science Lessons That Rock

Tomorrow we are going to follow up with the discussion of what happened and why. Students will take notes on osmosis and we will relate it to real world situations such as: Why can’t I drink salt water if I’m stranded on a boat in the ocean? Why is my contact lens solution saline instead of pure water? Why do grocery stores spray the produce with water? If you want a quick worksheet to use as a formative assessment to follow this lesson, check out my tonicity and osmosis worksheet in my TpT store HERE.

I hope your students enjoy the lab as much as mine did! Other than having my classroom smell like onion for a day, it was a total win! Want more ideas? Check out this blog post that has 10 resources for teaching cell membranes!


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Hi, I'm Becca!

I help busy science teachers get your prep back by providing you time saving lessons, labs, and resources.

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