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Sharing Excitement About Science

  • News Image
    Megan Lowther, Catherine Martin and Rachel Sellari work with students at Mitchell Elementary School on a chemistry experiment.
  • News Image
    Megan Lowther, Catherine Martin and Rachel Sellari conduct an experiment with students at Mitchell Elementary School.

Chemistry students take experiments to local elementary school

When he was growing up, Jacob Guajardo said he thought it was “really cool” when older students came to visit his school.

This fall the roles were reversed. Guajardo was one of 69 students from Southwestern who visited a Georgetown elementary school to guide students in real-life chemistry experiments. The project was part of the requirement for students taking General Chemistry.

“It’s actually quite a challenge to take sophisticated chemistry concepts and make them simple enough for elementary school students to understand,” said Willis Weigand, an associate professor of chemistry who teaches the General Chemistry course along with Emily Niemeyer, professor of chemistry, and Gulnar Rawji, associate professor of chemistry.

Experiments the Southwestern students came up with ranged from “Baggie Chemistry,” in which students observed what happened when different compounds were mixed together in plastic baggies, to an experiment in which salt and vinegar were used to clean dull copper pennies.

Guajardo, along with biology major Olubusola Okunnu and computer science major Dak Erwin, brought an experiment they called “The Magic Milk Experiment.” In this experiment, they added soap to plates containing whole milk and several drops of different food coloring. Because soap changes the surface tension of the milk, it sent the colors swirling around the plates, much to the delight of their audience of 5th graders.

Students found and developed the demonstrations themselves from information they found on the Internet or in books. Senior chemistry major Shannon Essler helped obtain supplies the students needed to do the experiments.

“It was fun to get out and show them what we do,” Guajardo said.

In all the experiments, Southwestern students stressed basic scientific practices such as developing a hypothesis and recording their observations.

“This is the age we need to get students fired up about science,” Weigand said.

Linda Rister, one of the science teachers at Mitchell Elementary School, said it is especially helpful for her students to see female college students doing science projects.

Rister said she hopes her students will have the opportunity to visit Southwestern’s science labs sometime in the future.

“Some of these students will never set foot on a college campus otherwise,” she said.

Weigand said he expects the project to become a permanent component of Southwestern’s General Chemistry class.

“Even if these elementary school students do not go into science, we can help them become more scientifically literate,” he said.

Suzy Pukys, director of civic engagement, said this is the largest number of Southwestern students who have participated in a community outreach project at one time. The project is an expansion of something Niemeyer has done with students in her Quantitative Methods of Analysis class for many years. Chemistry students participating in the Welch Summer Research Program also have done outreach work with children in the community.