Search NOVA Teachers

Back to Teachers Home

Secrets of Making Money

Classroom Activity

To design a bill and investigate properties of different kinds of materials.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "Bucking Trends" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copies of the activity sheet
  • sheet of white paper
  • scissors
  • wood pulp paper
  • lightweight cotton cloth
  • $1 bill
  • pencils, crayons or markers
  • chalk, highlighters, fluorescent paint
  • safety glasses
  • microscope or hand lens
  • neodymium magnet
  • ultraviolet light*
  1. Organize students into groups and distribute the "Bucking Trends" student handout to each group. In Part I, have students consider the aesthetics of bill design by choosing a nation they would like to represent and designing a bill for that nation. If possible, have students bring in samples of foreign currency to review.

  2. Have students include any security features they have learned about from the program or others they think of on their own, as well as symbols or pictures they believe represent their chosen country.

  3. Once they have designed their bills, have students continue to Part II. In this section, students will cut out their designed bills and compare them to same-sized cutouts of other materials and an actual U.S. bill. To conclude, ask students how good a choice is the material used for the U.S. bill and why. Why might the Treasury Department not have chosen other materials?

  4. As an extension, have students explore a replacement system of currency (such as traveler's checks, stamps, credit cards and plane tickets) and the security features used to deter counterfeiting.

* CAUTION: Have students wear safety glasses when using the ultraviolet light.

Activity Answer

Part I
In addition to designing bills for nations, students might also design bills for schools, teams or planets.

Part II
Explanations for test results:

Microscope: Tiny red and blue fibers embedded in U.S. bills can be seen through a microscope or hand lens. Microprinting can be seen around the bill's portrait and in the numerals in the lower left corner.

Magnet: The ink on U.S. paper money contains a magnetic signature; a bill will be drawn toward an especially strong magnet (such as a neodymium magnet).

Ultraviolet light: The bleach in most wood pulp paper will cause the paper to fluoresce; cotton and linen rag paper, used in U.S. bills, will not. Chalk, fluorescent paint, and highlighters will fluoresce.

Other tests: Students might try folding samples multiple times, putting samples in different liquids for various amounts of time (such as detergent, bleach or salt water) or running samples through a clothes dryer.

Links and Books


Johnson, David Ralph. Illegal Tender: Counterfeiting and the Secret Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1995. Surveys the history of counterfeiting and the Secret Services' attempts to combat it.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Secrets of Making Money
Find out which parts of the bill have been changed, learn more about the history of money, see if you can identify what's wrong with a counterfeit bill and find links to other money resources.

Smithsonian Institution National Numismatic Collection
Explores such topics as the history of the $20 U.S. gold coin; Russian coins and medals; the coinage of Spain; and images of Native Americans, women and African Americans on early U.S. bank notes.

U.S. Treasury Department Educational Links
Learn more about the features found on U.S. paper and metal currency, the history of the Treasury Department and its role in the federal government, and how to enter the U.S. Savings Bond Contest in this site for teachers, parents and students of all ages.

Some U.S. Currency Features

$100 bill

  • Security Thread: A polymer thread has words "USA TWENTY" printed on it and glows red under ultraviolet light.

  • Portrait: The portrait is enlarged and is more detailed.

  • Serial Number: An additional letter is added to the serial number.

  • Watermark: A translucent design embedded in the paper can be seen when the bill is held up to the light.

  • Color-Shifting Ink: The number looks green when viewed straight on but appears black when viewed at an angle.

  • Microprinting: The microprinted words "The United States of America" are hard to replicate because they're so small.

It is illegal to photocopy a bill at any size other than 75 percent or smaller, and 150 percent or larger.

The "Bucking Trends" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.

  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze and interpret data.

  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions and models using evidence.

  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.

  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.

  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Grades 9-12

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Identify questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations.

  • Design and conduct scientific investigations.

  • Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications.

  • Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.

  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.

  • Communicate and defend a scientific argument.

Teacher's Guide
Secrets of Making Money

Video is required for this activity