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Today’s scientists reach out to the next generation

Science is fun, interesting, and important—and something that you, too, can do! Those are the central themes of the Department of Chemistry's outreach programs, which reach thousands of young people and their parents and teachers each year.

The Department of Chemistry's free outreach program has existed for more than 20 years. Each year, a handful of volunteers—undergraduate and graduate chemistry students—conduct a variety of chemistry demonstrations and discuss chemistry careers in local schools and for a variety of groups. They also participate in special events at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Fair, the University of Minnesota, and other venues. Last year, the program reached approximately 7,000 young people with more than 45 presentations.

Chemistry concepts

The presentations encompass a number of interesting experiments that illustrate important chemical principles. Several include hands-on experiments designed to actively engage the students, which are facilitated with the help of Joe Franek, Department of Chemistry lecture demonstration director.

The presentations are specifically tailored to students' ages and levels of understanding about chemistry. Materials and advice are provided to teachers. Outreach volunteers also talk about the numerous careers that are possible in chemistry-related fields.

"We want to show that chemistry is fun," said Professor Ken Leopold who directs the program. "We want kids to know, from a very early age, that they, too, can do science, can do chemistry."

There also is a hope that some of the outreach volunteers will be inspired to become educators.

"The student volunteers really form the backbone of our outreach program," said Leopold. "It is fantastic that they are teaching kids about chemistry." He credits the student coordinators for their work with the program, including Research Assistant Eric Olson who coordinated the program for two years, and this year's coordinator Miranda Hada, an undergraduate student.

Coming to the university

To provide K-12 students and teachers with college-level laboratory experiences and opportunities to meet university faculty members and students, the Department of Chemistry's outreach encompasses inviting them to the university for tours, workshops, and demonstrations. For example, the desired outcome of one general chemistry workshop was to improve the capabilities of teachers on both sides of the high school to college transition to help their students succeed in college chemistry coursework.

Energy and U specialized outreach program

With an educational slide show set to music, and some demonstrations that include loud explosions, bright flashes and flames, Energy and U tries to ignite students' interest in science. Energy and U is a specialized outreach program of the University of Minnesota's College of Science & Engineering (CSE) and its Department of Chemistry and Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

"We try to emphasize that they, too, could do what we do every day," said Chemistry Associate Professor David Blank, one of the creators of Energy and U.

Energy and U shows focus on how energy can be stored and interconverted in many ways, and that chemical conversions play a key role. “We teach kids that they cannot make or destroy energy, they can just change its form,” said Blank.

Energy and U presenters include professors David Blank, Christy Haynes, and Marc Hillmyer, and lecture demonstration director Joseph Franek from the Department of Chemistry, and professor Frank Bates, head of  the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. Katherine Cramer, outreach coordinator for the CSE arranges for students and their teachers to attend Energy and U shows.

And there's much more . . .

From presentations in school classrooms to microscopy camps and special events such as chemistry days for city programs, many faculty members and chemistry students are involved in education outreach activities. With students of diverse, multicultural backgrounds, especially African-American, Latino, and American Indian, underrepresented in the College of Science & Engineering, outreach to students from diverse backgrounds and from low-income families is intentional.

Below are just a few examples of the Department of Chemistry's extensive outreach activities:

  • Each spring, the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) group hosts a "Cool Chemistry" workshop for girls in 7th and 8th grades. The day is chance for girls to explore, hands-on, the wonders of chemistry with women in the chemistry department's graduate program.
  • The Minnesota section of the American Chemical Society has one of the most extensive Chemists in the Library programs in the nation. Chemistry Professor Philippe Buhlmann is the principal organizer of monthly visits to community libraries where volunteers from varied chemistry careers and chemistry students help young people and adults with chemistry experiments.
  • Alpha Chi Sigma (AXE), a professional chemistry fraternity, conducts demonstrations at many events because it "wants to expose young people, no matter what age, to how cool chemistry can be," said Alisa Wobbema, AXE outreach coordinator.
  • Many professors have direct interaction with young people as part of National Science Foundation-funded research.

"This is what we should be doing, showing our kids that science is fun, that science is interesting, and that science is important," said Leopold.