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Saving the National Treasures

Classroom Activity


To determine the efficacy of different preservation techniques to reduce fading or yellowing from sun exposure.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Preserving Paper" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Sample Charts" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • white paper
  • scissors
  • tape
  • pen or pencil
  • plastic safety goggles
  • 4 sheets of non-fade-resistant construction paper—1 yellow, 1 blue, 1 red, 1 green (for colored paper teams only)
  • newspaper
  • materials for four treatment methods as determined by the class (see some suggestions below)

  1. Prior to doing the activity, leave a newspaper out in the sun until it yellows. Begin the activity by showing students the yellowed newspaper with a fresh newspaper. Ask students why they think one paper has yellowed. If some students speculate sun exposure explain that it is the ultraviolet rays from the sun that cause the damage. Tell students that in this activity, they will be experimenting with the efficacy of different preservation techniques to reduce fading or yellowing on paper samples exposed to the sun.

  2. Brainstorm with students six to eight possible treatment methods to protect colored paper and newspaper from sun damage. (Keep in mind that experiments will hang in school windows, so treatments should be able to dry and not harm windows.) Some suggestions include clear plastic covering, light-colored plastic covering, pump hair spray, wax, glue, paper cement.

  3. Organize students into teams. As a class, choose four of the treatment methods to test. Ask half the class to test the treatment methods on newspaper samples and half the class to test their treatment methods on colored paper samples.

  4. Review activity instructions with students. Have students prepare their samples. Remind students that any materials that receive coatings should be entirely covered but not dripping wet and that safety goggles should be worn when using any spray materials or products that could be harmful to the eyes. Have students clean their hands thoroughly after applying the treatments. Ask students to label and date each test sample.

  5. Tape the dried displays to the window (facing the sun) and note the time and day they are posted. Students should also note whether their group's samples receive the most, somewhere in the middle, or the least amount of daily sunlight relative to other teams' displays. Have students leave samples in the window for a period of seven days. (You may want to extend this period of time depending on the amount of sunlight the samples get during the experiment.) It is important for students to check their experiment each day they are at school because a treatment may protect the paper for a limited amount of time.

  6. Have students make a prediction about the treatment they believe will be most effective in preserving color or in keeping the newsprint from yellowing. Ask them to write down their prediction and why they made their choice.

  7. Ask students to observe the window displays each day and record their observations in their journal. Students should record the date and about how many hours of sunlight the displays receive each day. At the end of the experiment, have students gather their samples.

  8. Ask students to compare their light-exposed control to the dark control and record any differences. They should then compare treated samples with the light-exposed control and note the effects of the sunlight. They should also describe any damage caused by the different treatment methods on the colored paper or the newspaper.

  9. Have a class discussion and ask teams to share their results. Which color of paper was best preserved? By which technique? Which image had the least fading, yellowing, and/or damage? How did actual results concerning the best-preserved image match students' predictions? (See Activity Answer for sample results using some of the materials mentioned above.)

  10. As an extension, have students experiment with different inks. You may want to have students make iron gall ink (substitute tannic acid if you cannot get wasp galls) and compare its durability to commercial black ink by wetting the paper or subjecting it to moderate heat.

Activity Answer

Thomas Jefferson first composed the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. The Declaration proclaimed the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain and established the United States of America. An extended list of charges against the King detailed the reasons for the separation. On July 4, 1776, Congress formally adopted the Declaration; on August 2, Congress began to sign the final parchment, a process that took more than a year.

The Articles of Confederation were the first iteration of the country's constitution. Composed during the Revolutionary War, they were enacted March 1, 1781. Six years later, the states revised the Articles and drafted the current version of the U.S. Constitution. Since that time, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. It holds the record as the longest-lasting written constitution in the world. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments on December 15, 1791.

Sample Results
In this activity, colored paper and newspaper samples were exposed to sunlight. Sample results were obtained using wax, pump hair spray, water-based glue, paper cement, and plastic wrap. The experiment was done in November and December at a latitude of 42 degrees North. The materials received about 15 hours of afternoon sun. Results will vary depending upon latitude and season. Although scientists don't know exactly what causes newsprint paper made of groundwood pulp to yellow, one 1991 study confirms that solar UV radiation is the cause.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA Web Site—Saving the National Treasures
Find an article, interview, interactive activities, and resources in this companion Web site to the program.

Charters of Freedom
Presents high-resolution images of the Charters of Freedom and supplies additional information about the making and impact of the Charters.

Charters of Freedom Project
Provides information about the new encasements being made by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

Preserving the Charters of Freedom
Shares the role that some scientists played in helping to protect the Charters.

Preserving Works on Paper: Manuscripts, Drawings, Prints, Posters, Maps, Documents
Explains factors critical to preserving paper collections.


Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Presents the story of the drafting of the Declaration, the political atmosphere in which it was composed, and how it has been redefined and used by different groups of Americans.

Marcovitz, Hal. The Declaration of Independence. New York: Mason Crest Publishers, 2002.
Discusses the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the document's importance in American history.


The "Preserving Paper" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 5-8

Physical Science

Science Standard B:
Physical Science

Transfer of energy

  • Light interacts with matter by transmission (including refraction), absorption, or scattering (including reflection).

Grades 9-12

Physical Science

Science Standard B:
Physical Science

Chemical reactions

  • Chemical reactions may release or consume energy. Some reactions such as the burning of fossil fuels release large amounts of energy by losing heat and by emitting light. Light can initiate many chemical reactions such as photosynthesis and the evolution of urban smog.

Classroom Activity Author

A former director of the National Science Teachers Association and President of the Science Teachers Association of Manitoba, Dan Forbes has been active in teaching and curriculum development in both Canada and the United States for 20 years.

Teacher's Guide
Saving the National Treasures

Video is not required for this activity
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