November At-Home STEAM Activity: The Science Behind Our Love of Pumpkin Spice

It’s Fall, and that means it is officially Pumpkin Spice Season!

Just one whiff of the comforting aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger and our minds flood with fond autumnal memories. That first sip of a pumpkin spice latte brings on all those feelings of a crisp Fall day, wrapped up in a warm sweater, and enjoying the changing color of the leaves.

It may surprise you to know that many items labeled as pumpkin spice do not actually contain any pumpkin at all, but flavorings reminiscent of pie fresh from the oven.

So why do so many of us get caught up in pumpkin spice craze when most of the time we’re not smelling actual pumpkin? The science behind our love of pumpkin spice is a result of the brain’s connection with our olfactory system —our sense of smell— how it interprets scents, and then links those scents to our past. If pumpkin spice were marketed during a different season, research shows it would not be as popular. After all, most of us aren’t baking, or buying, pumpkin pies in the middle of July.

You can conduct your own scent-based research at home using the following experiment. Choose your scents and find out if you or your family can relate them to any memories. For example, many children identify vanilla as cookies. They are not familiar with vanilla extract, but they sure are familiar with the yummy scent of a cookie!

• Round balloons in different colors
• A variety of flavored extracts or essential oils
• Record sheet to record which scent is which color balloon
• Balloon pump or an adult really good at inflating balloons

Preparing the balloons
*Add the extracts just prior to conducting the activity:

  1. Put ½ tsp. of extract into each balloon
  2. Use the pump, or your adult, to blow up the balloon and tie it off
  3. Shake the balloon a few times to stimulate the evaporation of the extract
  4. Record which scent is in this color balloon
  5. Repeat the process for each extract and balloon


  1. Have your family and friends try to identify the scents
  2. Only reveal the scents at the conclusion of the activity

How does this work?

The extract or essential oil you put in the balloon is made up scent molecules so small, they can pass right through the balloon allowing you to smell the scent you hid inside. Every scent molecule has a different shape and your sense of smell recognizes each shape as a unique scent. It’s like the way a puzzle is made of different pieces, but only one piece is made to go in each spot.

Be sure to post a photo your family trying this activity and tag us @childrensmuseumofnaples!