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  September 13, 2004

Chemistry Outreach Programs For Kids
Dazzle, Delight, Inspire

It's 7 p.m. on a summer night and a lecture hall in the chemistry building is full of students - high schoolers, middle-school youngsters with their parents, and some undergraduates - ready to be dazzled by a chemistry demonstration called "Fire and Ice."

Image: Art Dimock and Joy Erickson

Art Dimock and Joy Erikson perform chemistry demonstrations as part of an event titled "Fire and Ice", an outreach program for youngsters that was held at UConn during the summer.
Photo by Dollie Harvey

It's performance science, the counterpart to performance art, and its purpose is to enthrall students and inspire them to become scientists.

"Kids are most interested in doing something that engages them," says Joy Erickson, outreach director in the chemistry department and organizer of the demonstration.

Through a slew of programs - science demonstrations at schools around the state, after-school career preparation for minority students, and summer research internships for high school students, among others - Erickson stokes that curiosity. She piques kids' interest in science, feeds it, and mentors those who come to UConn so that they will succeed.

It's a "continuous pipeline," as she describes it, from grade school through graduate school. Her students range from kindergartners to age 20-plus, but her strategy with all of them is the same.

"When I enter a classroom, my goal is to have every single kid in that room staring at me and wondering what will happen," she says.

During the "Fire and Ice" demonstration, she succeeded - with the help of Arthur Dimock, an emeritus professor who started doing outreach in elementary and middle schools as a "sideline" more than 20 years ago, in addition to his duties as a chemistry professor and assistant department head at UConn.

"For me, it's the fun part of teaching," says Dimock, who has chemistry showmanship down to a science.

He starts slowly, packing a few pieces of dry ice, or solid CO2, in a balloon, sealing it, and setting it on a lab table. Gently the balloon expands as he explains the properties of dry ice and how CO2 "sublimes," or changes directly from a solid to a gas, when it gets warm.

By the time he reaches reaction chemistry, his audience is expecting bigger excitement.

"Reactions that go very quickly, especially burning reactions, are what we call explosions," he explains, as he wheels out a large oxygen tank to fill a small balloon.

"We know that liquid oxygen is what they use to send rockets up," he adds mildly. "You may want to cover your ears."

When he fills the balloon with a mixture of oxygen and propane and holds it on a long stick over a candle flame, the resulting bang elicits excited screams from his audience, now hooked.

The grand finale is worthy of July 4. With the lights in the room dimmed, he takes a one-foot block of dry ice, sprinkles magnesium on it, torches it into a flame, and places another large block of dry ice on top.

"You would think that would put it out," he suggests. No one in the audience is buying that. In the dark, the dry ice begins to glow. It gets whiter and brighter, sends off steam, and finally hisses and pops with bigger and bigger sparkler-like explosions.

"That would impress the neighbors," he says, to wild applause.

Both Dimock and Erickson are working with the state Department of Education and with the education organization EastConn to review curriculum frameworks in science. With the No Child Left Behind legislation, there is a push to have more science curriculum oversight, Dimock says.

"The whole university is interested in bringing in more scientists - that's why we do this," says Erickson. "If a student has a desire to be a scientist, we want them to succeed."

Many of the budding scientists who enter UConn want to be doctors or work in the health professions. Part of her job is to "expose them to different sciences, different types of labs," she says. "They tend to diversify once they start exploring other things."

Although she is based in chemistry in a special outreach laboratory that Dimock helped design for the new chemistry building in 1998 (the lab benches are lower, for younger students to reach), Erickson creates programs in astronomy, water pollution, math, and biology, as well as chemistry. In all, she interacts with 5,000 students a year, at UConn and in schools around the state.

The KAST, or Kids are Scientists Too, program, started in 1995 by Dimock and Gary Bent, a former professor of physics at the University, was one of the earliest science outreach efforts at UConn. It now attracts 200 or more students for "science camp" each summer. The effort is paying off: Erickson says she has seen KAST kids show up later as students at UConn.

"Graduates" of other programs are coming to UConn, too. Lisa Madson and Steve Cote will be sophomores at UConn this fall. Both describe themselves as pre-meds, and both were Windham High School students who first experimented with science at UConn in a summer research program that Erickson supervises.

Madson said she was inspired to become a scientist by her mother, who is a cell biologist, but Cote is the first person in his family to choose a science career.

The undergraduate research that they both are undertaking this summer, another of Erickson's outreach efforts, has kept them focused on their goal, according to Madson.

"Once you get results in the lab, it gets more fascinating," she says.