Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005 12:04:02 -0500
Reply-To: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Subject: Re: Class demo - whoa!
In-Reply-To: <E07AD36B17A4D411896D00805FCC9B0D0755BEF6**At_Symbol_Here**NT05>

I am all for outreach programs, but I am dismayed that the teacher
saw fit to teach young kids that chemistry is "Talking about fire and
about things that blow up."

I've done these demos at elementary schools.   Before I did my last
one, I told the kids that I am a chemist and I asked them what
chemists do.   The first kid I called on said "Blows things up."  Not
one of them could provide a useful contribution of chemists to

We've got a bad enough stereotype without adding to it ourselves.

Blowing things up is the entirely WRONG notion of chemistry to give
to kids.  Chemistry is *so* much more.  I absolutely NEVER do a
flame/smoke/explosion demo at the elementary level (the most obvious
reason being that kids might try something with gasoline instead of
alcohol).  It is more important to imbue kids with hypotheses,
testing with experiments, and interpreting results than it is to snag
their interest in chemistry over some other science that doesn't blow
things up.

I will freely admit that I Blow Things Up all the time in upper level
presentations when it *makes a point* about what we are doing.   I
even have some nice movies of it at  And it's fun.  But I
reiterate that it is completely inappropriate at the elementary level.

Slime is a great experiment for the elementary level.  It uses
household items, has an unexpected result, is cool, is gross, and
encourages kids to analyze, think and explore.   Likewise, color
changes are great, too as long as we explain the science behind it
and don't call it "magic".   Fred Basolo of Northwestern had a whole
talk titled "Chemistry is Not Magic" to combat this additional
example of the negative self-stereotypes chemists tend to project.

In closing, I'll add one additional comment.   When I did one of
these shows a few years ago, every student in the class agreed that
one could prove a hypothesis.   I suspect that a significant number
of elementary educators believe this themselves.   So I used the
opportunity to educate not only the students, but the faculty.
Remember that when you plan your shows.

Here's the exchange that followed after students insisted one can
prove a hypothesis:

I have another hypothesis...that the student with me is Bill. Can we
prove this is Bill?

(chorus of voices) Yes, oh yes, sure.

OK, what should we do?

Ask him!

(to graduate student) Is your name Bill?


Well, that doesn't prove anything. He could be lying!

Student A:
Check his ID!

OK, let's have your ID, "Bill"...(makes big production out of
examining it in detail)...yep, says right here on his license that
he's Bill. But you know, this could be a fake ID!

Student B:
(bit of a pause) Ask his mother!

Good idea...except maybe she's in on it...she might not even be his mother!

Student C:
Ooooh! Do a DNA test (impressive for a 4th grader)

Great, except we don't know what Bill's DNA should look like.

(frustrated look...thinking hard....)

In fact, I have another hypothesis....that this isn't Bill at all,
but a Martian disguised as Bill. And (in a quiet soft whisper)
Martians can perfectly imitate human DNA...

(so quiet you can hear a pin drop....Rob launches into further
discussion...teachers scribble down notes.)

At the end of the session, a student asked if she could have some of
the slime we made. I said "Well, you'd better ask Bill because it's
his slime." She leaned in, glanced furtively left to right and said
in a serious and conspiratorial tone "we don't know that is Bill."

I let her have the slime.


>I thought members of this list would be interested in the following article.
>The link is broken now.
>Bloom Trail students experiment with teaching
>BLOOM TOWNSHIP, EDUCATION: Educators hope visit to Sandridge sparks interest
>in science.
>Times Correspondent
>This story ran on on Friday, January 28, 2005 12:12 AM CST
>BLOOM TOWNSHIP | With smoke and flames, exploding eggs and color-changing
>mixtures, fifth- and sixth-grade students at Sandridge Elementary School
>were wowed by science Thursday.
>Bloom Trail High School chemistry teacher Chris Clausing and six of his
>students spent part of the day at Sandridge, demonstrating a variety of
>chemistry and physics experiments in an effort to spark an interest in
>There were mixes of solutions like phenophthalein, sodium hydroxide and
>hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate, potassium hydroxide and dextrose. Each
>combination reacted differently and each resulted in an audible response
>from the Sandridge students.
>Bloom Trail junior Matt Bolin blended hydrogen peroxide, a starter solution,
>and potassium iodate and put it on top of a magnetic stirrer. The mixture
>went from yellow to blue and back to yellow again. Sandridge students were
>visibly impressed.
>Senior Jeff Borus' mix of potassium permanganate, glycerine and water
>generated smoke and purple and "sherbet"-colored flames. The elementary
>school students applauded.
>Junior Melissa Wolford made slime using polyvinyl alcohol and isopropyl
>(rubbing) alcohol. Students in Nancy Adams' and Candice Myers' fifth-grade
>classes were eager to touch it.
>When Wolford lit a match and cautiously dropped it into a large empty water
>jug coated with isopropyl alcohol, there was a loud whoosh and flames shot
>out the top of the jug. Eleven-year-old Brandon Baranowski said he liked
>this experiment the best.
>"That's what chemistry is," Clausing explained. "Talking about fire and
>about things that blow up."
>But Wolford, who attended Sandridge for kindergarten, first and second
>grade, offered some words of caution.
>"Do not do this at home," she told the youngsters. "This experiment does
>hurt. I've burned myself five or six times already and I've had two years of
>Clausing said his intent in bringing his high school students into
>elementary schools to demonstrate chemistry in action is 'to get the love of
>science instilled at a young age."
>Other Bloom Trail students who took part in the event at Sandridge were
>junior Danielle Knight, junior Teri Belt and freshman Jeff Paris.

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