Complex chemical reactions may seem difficult to the average student. Luckily for children across the state and many others, the Louisiana State University (LSU) ChemoDemo program’s undergraduates explain thematic concepts of chemistry in safe, fun demonstrations in K-12 classrooms.
Dr. George Stanley, LSU Cyril and Tutta Vetter Louisiana Fund Alumni Professor of chemistry, launched this project that has brought over 15,000 LSU undergraduate students to more than 7,000 classrooms in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. ChemDemo’s undergrads have interacted with over 182,000 K-12 students during its 20-year history, which makes the program the largest K-12 service-learning activity on record in the United States. ChemDemo has also received grant funding from corporations such as Albermarle, Exxon Mobil, and Dow Chemical.
To earn extra bonus points in their intro to chemistry course, LSU undergraduates perform interactive chemistry demonstrations (ranging from one to six college students per demo in classrooms) for about 50 minutes. Presentations range from dissolving Styrofoam, to using baking soda and vinegar to shoot a cork out of a bottle, to burning magnesium in dry ice, to exploring stoichiometry–the study of the amounts of substances that are involved in reactions–by making soap bubbles using oxygen and combustible gases and then igniting them. LSU students purchase most of the supplies for their experiments, while the LSU Chemistry Department provides more specialized equipment and chemicals.
When Stanley started this program in May 1997, he admitted he was apprehensive that most undergraduates might not prepare for teaching the concepts of the demos as much as the actual presentation. Most of his students allayed those concerns as they became invested in how to best teach the material at an age appropriate level.
“I have found that most students take it seriously, because it’s mostly like a performance,” Stanley mused. “They want to be a good teacher, who is entertaining, educational and engaging.”
ChemDemo students are required to write a reflection essay after each visit to a classroom, which has challenged students to think critically about their teaching experience. Stanley said his students are most amazed at how their audience responds to the demos.
Sadie Hawkins, an LSU student from Mandeville, LA, demonstrated for the Magnolia Trace third graders the chemical concepts that create silly putty. Characteristic of all ChemDemo’s presentations, her one-time students were able to take home their creation.
“It was an overall very rewarding experience,” Hawkins said. “Honestly, what interested me the most was the students’ excited reactions to the demonstration.”
For many of the program’s students, returning to their former school to lead a demo motivates their participation in the program. Dr. Stanley recalled one student from Opelousas, La., who remembered when LSU students once came to his K-12 school and performed a chemistry experiment as part of ChemDemo. Sparked by the presentation, his interest in chemistry led him to participate in the program as a college student with the chance of hopefully igniting the same flame in the students of his childhood alma mater. Stanley said that this story, and many like this one, best illustrates the program’s mission.
An initially unintended outcome has been that some ChemDemo participants pursue careers in teaching.
Stanley explained that this career move was actually common for those majoring in the sciences. ChemDemo helps some college students realize that if they love chemistry, this teaching opportunity can serve as a transformative experience.
Tabitha Vu, one of Stanley’s former students (B.A., 2002, Secondary Education for chemistry), said that her participation in ChemDemo “greatly influenced” her choice of degree.
“Chemistry is a subject of awe and excitement,” Vu said. “It was a singular experience to see the impact of demonstrating a chemical principle to students who were in their early stages of learning.”
For almost 10 years, Vu has provided an opportunity for the same “singular experience” to those LSU ChemDemo students who have visited her Dutchtown High School classroom. Her chemistry students have had the chance to enjoy and engage in demonstrations that would otherwise not occur while doing their coursework.
“It is a unique opportunity for the students to see that the chemistry they are learning is the same as the chemistry they would learn in college, which can greatly reduce the anxiousness of taking a college chemistry course.”
Vu, a Prairieville, La. native, added that the ChemDemo presentations also offer experienced teachers like her a chance to learn “new ideas and methods” in explaining various chemical principles to K-12 students.
It is easy to trace how Dr. George Stanley, who studies the way in which catalysts increase the rates of specific reactions–or catalysis–has served as a catalyst for one of service-learning’s most important outcomes: reciprocity. Every participant of ChemDemo has benefited (in one or multiple ways) from addressing the community need for more dynamic, interactive, and engaging education in schools.
“It would not be possible without George Stanley’s dedication to the program, both in its inception as well as his efforts for improvement year after year,” Vu said. “The ChemDemo experience is truly positive for absolutely everyone involved.”
[Photo of two LSU students demonstrating chemisty experiment with flower in elementary classroom with one elementary student--all wearing safety goggles.]