Russia Unit Study: Week 4

Our final week in the Russia Unit is literally bursting with science—specifically rocket science and chemistry! Your child will have many opportunities for hands-on STEM experiments as you learn about famous scientific discoveries, historic events, and the brilliant people who made them possible. There will also be several opportunities to incorporate gameschooling this week, so get ready to play! Finally, students will enjoy amazing food recipes as they choose between preparing several appetizers and a dessert. Ready to start? Click here to download this week’s skills tracker.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional books:

Gameschooling options:

Optional robotics kits:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything): 

Straw rocket:

International Space Station model:

  • recyclable materials (use what you have), such as:

(-) Frozen water STEM experiment:

(+) Salinity and frozen water STEM experiment:

Element models:

Russian salad recipe:

Dumpling recipe:

Dessert recipe:

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Lesson 1:

Let’s take our learning out of this world by learning about the Space Race and some rocket science!

***Homeschooling younger students also? Look for activities that link up with our Space lesson in our Level 1 Outer Space Unit, our Level 2 Outer Space Unit, or our Level 2+ Outer Space Unit.

Activity 1: Begin by reading the book The Race to Space: From Sputnik to the Moon Landing and Beyond by Clive Gifford. Focus on the progress made by Russia in the Space Race. Next, watch this video or this video for a summary of the Space Race between the United States and the USSR. We will be exploring several of the events in the Space Race in our lessons today.

Sputnik is one of the few Russian words known by foreigners around the world, and all that’s thanks to the brilliant engineer and inventor of this Soviet satellite, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. Korolev had a passion for space from early childhood and even projected his first glider in his teenage years! Throughout his career, Sergei worked with fuel rockets, missiles, and other aeronautical projects, but most importantly, this great man was the founder of the Soviet Space Program. The Space Program achieved many successful firsts, including the launch of the human-made Sputnik in 1957. (source)

One of Russia’s additional advancements was Sputnik 2. Read the picture book Laika the Space Dog: First Hero in Outer Space by Jeni Wittrock (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Laika by Nick Abadzis (or listen to this read aloud) to learn about the first dog in space (which quickly led to the first man in space).

Activity 2: Read the story of the first man to go to space, Yuri Gagarin, in the book Yuri Gagarin and the Race to Space (or read it here on OpenLibrary). 

Scientists have designed so many incredible machines to get to space. Learn about rockets in this video. The laws of gravity and the laws of physics are an important part of rocket science. Next, try building your own straw rocket with this tutorial! This video helps us to see what we can learn from this straw rocket. (You can also find this experiment in Kitchen Science Lab for Kids, Lab 50 on pages 134 and 135.) 

(+) Want a rocket with a little more flying ability? Try this kit.
(++) If you purchased or borrowed Kitchen Science Lab for Kid, you can also make your own sky-high bottle rockets with with the instructions on pages 136-137.

Activity 3: Discover the International Space Station. Watch this video to learn about the space station that is orbiting the earth right now. You can also watch this video for more details. 

Now let’s build your own International Space Center model using recycled materials! We have listed several suggested supplies above but use what you have. Watch this video for inspiration.

Activity 4: Watch this video to see how robotics plays a role in space exploration. Did all this space talk make your child want to explore more STEM robots? Here are a few suggested kits for your robot lover:

  • This tin can robot is more of a crafting robot since it’s not programmable, but it’s a great introduction to robot building and great for kids with a vivid imagination.
  • This Makeblock robot is a bit of an investment and will be great for kids who are ready for a programmable robot. 
Lesson 2:

Today’s focus will be on modern-day Russia, along with some very cool earth science!

Activity 1: Russia today has 145 million people living within its borders. Its capital city is Moscow, and it is officially called the Russian Federation. The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world and borders Russia. Read a few facts about the Caspian Sea here

Most water bodies today have been classified into broad groups: oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, streams, and pools (further classified into above the ground, underground, etc.). However, the Caspian Sea is unique because it hasn’t been successfully categorized as strictly either a lake or a sea. 

Why the confusion? A lake is a body of water that does not feed into an ocean and is generally landlocked on most of its boundaries. The Caspian Sea fits that description since it is not connected to any ocean and is predominantly landlocked, barring a few rivers flowing into it.

At the same time, a sea is a large body of water in surface area and depth, but is generally not as big as an ocean. The Caspian Sea suits these descriptors as well because it is a vast body of water covering 371,000 square kilometers with an average depth of 211 meters and a maximum depth of over 1 kilometer.

So which is it? Well, it is sometimes called a lake—in fact, it is the world’s largest lake. But it’s also called the Caspian Sea. Why does it matter? Because legally, a sea cannot be claimed by any single nation and any country’s fleet is free to use it within limitations set by the United Nations (UN) or International Maritime Organization (IMO). A lake, however, can be claimed by a single or group of nations, and passage is not necessarily available to all. This has led to territorial disputes because the Caspian hasn’t been demarcated, making it a unique case. 

Draw a map of the Caspian Sea and label the five countries that surround it. Use Google Earth and this map to help your student create their map. Be sure to include map elements, such as a legend, title, scale, and orientation indicators. (Here are tips about mapping elements to help, if you need it.)

Next, watch this video to learn about the Caspian seal and efforts being made to keep the animals that live in the sea safe. You can also read more about Caspian seals here

Activity 2: Another important body of water in Russia is Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest, oldest, and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Baikal curves for nearly 400 miles through south-eastern Siberia. At its deepest point, it is over 5,000 feet (1,637 meters) deep. (source) Watch this video to learn the importance of this lake and the efforts being made to protect it. 

Next, enjoy this video that depicts a tourist visit to Siberia and eventually Lake Baikal. At the end of the video, you will see Lake Baikal in its frozen state. This leads to a good question: How does a lake freeze?

Of course, ice is created when the water temperature reaches it’s freezing point. We’ve all seen ice cubes created in the freezer! Yet, lakes are too big to freeze all at once, and they don’t completely freeze all the way through. So how does that happen? It all starts with water density. 

Let’s pause here and define density because it can be a tough concept to grasp. Density refers to how much mass there is in a particular space. Mass is the amount of matter an object contains. (source) Think of it this way: Imagine a drawer full of socks—it has a certain density. If you take a sock out, the density of the drawer changes. This is because the mass of the socks has changed, but the volume (or the size of an object—how much space it takes up) of the drawer has stayed the same. (source)

Ice, or solid water, has less density than liquid water, even though it has more volume. As warm summer waters begin to cool, the cooler water in the lake will sink. (Think of how the deeper that you go in the lake, the colder the water gets.) The process of the upper layer cooling and sinking occurs until the temperature of all the water in the lake drops to approximately 39 degrees Fahrenheit—the point at which water reaches its maximum density. (source) At that temperature, the water begins expanding and becomes less dense as it gets even colder. That means that colder water begins to come to the surface, and the warmer water sinks to the bottom. The water on the surface will then freeze to form a layer of ice, and the ice will have the least density, making it float on top of any cold water as well. (source)

Once an ice film has formed on the surface of the lake and the air above the ice continues to be colder than the ice, the ice will thicken. The cold air above the ice causes heat to leave the lake water under the ice and from the ice itself. This causes the water below the ice to freeze into successively deeper layers. As the winter air gets colder and colder, the ice gets thicker and thicker until we can stand, skate, and even drive on it without falling through!

Why do lakes freeze and not oceans? Find out with (-) this STEM experiment or learn about salinity and water density with (+) this STEM experiment.

Here are some other interesting facts about frozen water that may interest your child:

  • You may hear cracks, pops and groans. Frozen lakes make the most noise during major changes in temperature. The ice expands or contracts when the temperature changes. The sheet of ice on a lake is like a giant membrane that the sound travels across. This also explains why you will hear the most noise from the lake in the morning and evening, as the temperature rises or drops.(source)
  • Have you every wondered how fish and other animals survive the frozen water? Fish have several adaptations to survive a winter below the ice. First, they are cold blooded, meaning their body temperature matches their environment. Colder temperatures mean a reduction in their metabolism. This slows their life processes, such as breathing (respiration), digestion, and activity level. They will also stay away from areas with a strong current to save energy. They hunker down in low current areas and enter a state of torpor, reducing their respiration and using as little energy as possible. (source

Activity 3: We’ve talked about frozen water…let’s warm things up! The banya, or traditional Russian bathhouse, is an integral part of Russian culture. Banya has its own rules, traditions, customs, and even ceremonies. The ancient Slavs believed that the banya was a combination of four elements—fire, water, earth and air—therefore banya was considered a sacred place. They believed that the man who steamed in the banya became stronger and healthier. There was even a belief that if a patient did not recover after the banya, then nothing would help him. (source)

The oldest functioning bath house in Moscow is the Sandunovsky banya, which you can see here. It is a blend of centuries-old banya traditions and museum-style interiors. Sandunovsky banya opened its doors in 1808 and enthralled the public with deluxe furniture and elegant silver tubs. In 1896, the refurbished banya was not just a visual stunner, but a technological marvel as well. Interiors of the electrically-lit, three-storied palace combined elements of architectural design in several modern, popular styles. To ensure there was enough water, the new owner built an aqueduct and set up expensive water filters. The new Sanduny also offered their services to both rich and poor, and the cheaper rooms were cleaned as thoroughly as the expensive ones. Sandunovsky banya has survived three wars, a revolution, and multiple government changes and still remains Russia’s most spectacular bathhouse. (source)

So what exactly happens in the banya? A banya typically includes a steam room with wooden, leafy branches that are used for massages and buckets or pools of cold water. The special bath brooms, or veniks, are bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together from some kind of tree—usually they are from birch or oak trees. The veniks are dipped into cold water and then smacked briskly all over the body. There is a special person who is responsible for this, called banschik. It is believed that venik in Russian bath plays a great role in warming up the body by improving blood circulation, intensifies skins capillary activities, and even revving the metabolism. (source)

In addition to using the venik, people in Siberia will often also walk outside of the steam room and lie down in the snow. What do you think? Does this sound like a relaxing day at the spa to you?

A visit to the banya is said to improve skin and overall health. Hot steam helps clean the skin, making it soft and smooth. The Russian banya even helps fight illnesses by removing harmful elements from the body, thanks to the bath-brooms and hot steam. There is even a Russian proverb that says, “The day you spend in the banya is the day you do not age.” (source)

Want to have an at-home banya? If you have oak or birch trees near you, try making your own venik with a bundle of them. You can also use (or add in) eucalyptus pieces for some additional aromatherapy. Now you are ready to sauna!

Start by having your child take a warm shower. Then, have them get out and put on a robe or bathing suit while you close the bathroom door and turn on the shower very hot until the room fills with steam. Let your child relax in the empty tub while you dip the venik in cold water and gently trace it on their arms and legs. (Ensure your child does not have any allergies to the materials first.) Then they can rinse off and drink some tea or water to re-hydrate (add lemon or cucumber to make it fancy!). In a traditional banya, these steps are repeated 4-6 times for the full experience. (source) What does your child think of this Russian tradition?

Grown-ups! Want to visit a real banya? There are a few around the world. Click here to see if there is one near you.

Lesson 3:

Let’s take a closer look at some inventions and discoveries that have come out of Russia.

***Homeschooling a younger student also? Look for a simple atom activities in our Level 2 China Unit, Lesson 4, Activities 1 and 2.

Activity 1: There are many scientists who have contributed to growing our knowledge of chemistry, but one of the world’s most famous Russian scientists is Demitri Mendeleev and his periodic table. We are going to watch a series of videos about Mendeleev and his famous table. There is some overlap in the videos, but they each add new information and create a solid foundation for lessons today and beyond. Watch this video to learn about Mendeleev. Next, watch this video to learn what set him apart from other scientists of his day. Finish off with this video to put it all together. 

(+) Want to read about all those details instead of watching videos? Read chapter 17 of the book The Mystery of the Periodic Table to learn more about Mendeleev and his discoveries. (You can also read it here on OpenLibrary.)

Now let’s get to know the elements themselves a bit better. Begin exploring the elements with the book A Beginner’s Guide to the Periodic Table. Read pages 5-9 for an introduction to elements and the periodic table.

Elements are different kinds of atoms. Read pages 10 and 11 for a better understanding of atoms and then watch this video for more details. In the middle of every atom is a central part called the nucleus. It contains tiny particles called protons and neutrons, which are all the same size as each other. Most of the rest of an atom is empty space, but at the edge there are even tinier parts called electrons, which whiz around the nucleus in layers. These layers are called shells. Small atoms only have one shell, but larger atoms can have several. The inner shell contains up to two electrons. Remaining shells can hold up to eight electrons. Click here to download a diagram of an atom. Atoms are often shown like this so that we can clearly identify its parts, but it’s important to know that they don’t really look like this in real life. (+)If you are interested in what they really look like, check out this video

Protons and electrons both have an electrical charge, and it’s this charge that holds atoms together. Protons have a positive charge, while electrons have a negative one. (Neutrons have a neutral charge, or no charge.) When the charges are balanced, they cancel each other out. Atoms have the same number of protons as electrons, so overall atoms have no change. (source)

Because atoms are so small, we can’t see them. So to study atoms we usually use models. Let’s make atoms come to life with a hands-on activity. Begin by printing and cutting out these element cards. You will need play dough, 5 colors of beads, and pipe cleaners.

Begin by giving your child one of the cards. Have them create a small circle with the playdough. Have them pick one color bead to be neutrons, 1 color to be protons, 1 color to be electrons on the inner shell, 1 to be electrons on the outer shell, and 1 color to be electrons on the most outer shell. Using the card, begin by constructing the nucleus, pressing the right number of proton and neutron beads into the play dough. Create a circle with a pipe cleaner to be the first shell and string the correct number of electrons. As you move through the cards, they will need to add more pipe cleaner shells and use the different electron colors.

As you create each element, learn more about each individual atom using the book A Beginner’s Guide to the Periodic Table, pages 16-27. 

(+) To learn more about how atoms fill up their shells by giving and taking electrons from nearby atoms, read pages 36-38 of What’s Chemistry all About? or read it here on OpenLibrary.

(++) If your child just loves chemistry, they can take a deep dive with the help of Hank Green from Crash Course videos, starting here

Activity 2: Make the periodic table come to life with this Periodic Table Illustrated Jigsaw Puzzle. As you build the puzzle continue to read pages 28-57 of A Beginner’s Guide to the Periodic Table.

Optional gameschooling idea: Periodic: A Game of The Elements Board Game About Atoms, Compounds, and Periodic Trends

Activity 3: Let’s have a periodic table scavenger hunt! Print out the element cards on this website. Set up the cards into the standard periodic table. Then, go around the house and find items that contain each of the elements. 

Activity 4: Alexey Pajitnov is a Russian computer engineer who developed the popular game Tetris with the help of his family while working for the Computer Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Pajitnov and his seven brothers created the popular gme in 1985. The Soviet bureaucracy licensed and managed Tetris and advertised it with the slogan, “From Russia with love.” (source) The game, first available in the Soviet Union, appeared in the West in 1986. (Did you play Tetris as a kid? Tell your child about it!)

Tetris inspired the board game Blokus, and it can be a great way to work on geometry and other math skills. So, let’s play! (Don’t tell them this counts as math!)

Lesson 4:

Today, we’ll be talking about the religions and beliefs of Russia. The Russian Federation doesn’t have an official state religion, but a country as big as Russia is home to an abundance of cultures that include many different religions. Russia’s most widely professed (71% of the population) and most powerful religion is the Russian Orthodox Church. Other religions can also be found among Russians, such as Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Shamanism. (source and source) Today’s activities will help your child gain an understanding of three of Russia’s most popular religions. If these beliefs are different from your own, discuss the common ground you can still find, as well as where you differ. If your family practices these beliefs, use these activities as an opportunity to discuss the history and meaning of your own traditions.

Activity 1: Let’s read a story about Jewish Russians. Read either The Keeping Quilt (also part of Level 1: Quilts Unit) or The Blessing Cup to learn about their culture and traditions. 

Activity 2: Next, let’s learn about Islam. There are 20 million Muslims living in Russia. (source) Watch this video for an introduction to this religion. Next, take a peek inside a Moscow mosque in this video. Visit this webpage and download the biography of Mohamed to learn about him and his role in Islam. 

Activity 3: The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest eastern orthodox church. Many of its churches are seen throughout St. Petersburg, including the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul and Smolny Cathedral. This city wasn’t always the grand place it is today—it was actually a marsh! Russian emperor Peter the Great wanted to make a great city for Russia to rival European cities like London or Paris, so he decided to build a new capital (even though it is not the capital today) where the mighty Neva River flows into the Baltic Sea. Before Peter arrived, the banks of the Neva were lined with reeds and swamps and the only buildings were fishermen’s cabins. He had the city built from the ground up.

To do this, he brought in stonemasons to build, prisoners were forced to build trenches, and criminals were put to work draining the marsh. He ordered noblemen to shave their beards and dress in European fashion and move to his new city. For more on the development of St. Petersburg, read pages 58 and 59 from the book The Story of Buildings. Watch this video that features the beauty of St. Petersburg, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

After learning about this city, let’s plan a pretend trip to visti! Make a list of the places within the city that you would want to see. Look for places to eat and an evening event. Turn your day plan into a timeline. Finally, research what transportation is available and how much time it will take to get to and from your various destinations.

(+) For a brief history of the city watch this video.

Lesson 5:

We made it to our final lesson of Russia! Let’s end our unit with some final food history.

Activity 1: A distinguishing characteristic of Russian cuisine is the abundance of appetizers. When receiving guests, one should offer all kinds of appetizers, including sauerkraut, salted mushrooms, pickles, and herring. In a hospitable home, they would greet a guest and welcome him or her to a table spread with dishes. Among appetizers, you would find many salads. (source) Prepare this salad appetizer for our meal today.

Activity 2: Another appetizer you will probably enjoy is the piroshki or the pelmeni. These dishes are both examples of Russian dumplings. Dumplings are a universal treat! Almost every culture and country has its very own dumpling. They may not all use the word “dumpling,” but the concept is the same: a dough casing wrapped around some sort of filling, or sometimes just dough. Either way, most everyone loves dumplings in some shape or form. (source

(-) Read the book Dumpling Day or Our World of Dumplings to see how dumplings are incorporated into so many cultural foods. Choose which type of dumpling you would like to prepare, and then prepare this pelmeni recipe or this piroshki recipe

Activity 3: If dessert is more your specialty, we wanted to include one more recipe you might enjoy preparing and eating! This ptichye moloko (or bird’s milk cake) recipe is a delicious, classic Russian dessert.

Activity 4: Conclude your Russian Unit by reviewing the timeline on page 66-67 of Honest History, discussing all that you remember from our study of Russia.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.