Marguerite Crowell stood before the classroom of sixth-graders, pointing to a student holding a dollar bill. Crowell lit a match, and the kids watched as flames started enveloping the money. After a few seconds, Crowell, an adjunct Plymouth State University chemistry teacher, blew out the flames, and there was the bill, unscathed by fire. A magic trick? “No,” explained Crowell, “The bill never was burning, alcohol doused on the money before it was lit caused the flames.” The lesson for the Plymouth Middle School students was simple; chemistry is not only fun, but it can be fascinating and educational, too.
Marguerite Crowell and Anil Waghe of PSU’s Chemical, Earth, Atmospheric and Physical Sciences department were in the school celebrating National Chemistry Week, sponsored by the American Chemical Society. PSU’s involvement in Chemistry Week included students Beth Benton and Kevin Munroe, with the cooperation of Plymouth Middle School teacher Gerry Gontarz.
“Chemistry is not from a different world, chemistry is all around us,” said Waghe. “We wanted students to know it can be interesting, it can be something they can excel at. We hope more kids will choose chemistry and perhaps make it a career.”
This is the second year PSU faculty have conducted the Chemistry Week program for Plymouth’s sixth-grade students. This year’s theme was “Your Home-It’s All Built on Chemistry,” so Crowell and Waghe used different experiments to illustrate the importance and prevalence of chemistry in their lives. The children were exposed to examples from locking arms with classmates to mimic the molecular bonding of plywood, to building insulated containers in finding the best way to keep a home warm in the winter. Students made observations, tested predictions and came to conclusions about materials chemists have developed that make our homes better.
The appeal, according to Crowell, is convincing children that chemistry is not some high-level, intangible subject, but a real science that they can understand and excel at.
“These experiments get them thinking critically, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and when you weave an experiment into something they can see and understand, it’s a valuable learning experience,” Crowell said.
“We were really energized by the kid’s reactions,” Crowell said. “The best part is when they start asking questions. That’s when you know they’ve been listening and they ‘get it,’ they’re curious and that’s exciting, to see them making discoveries.”
Crowell, a 12-year veteran of PSU’s chemistry department, added, “It is very important to make connections in the community, to foster a nice relationship between the community and PSU.”
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