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Chemistry at Play

ACS volunteers of all ages explore the "Joy of Toys" with glittering slime, bouncy balls, and other playthings during National Chemistry Week 2005

by Rachel Petkewich, C&EN Washington
December 12, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 50

Credit: Courtesy of The Florida Section
Student affiliates from Florida Southern College helped kids at Kingsford Elementary make superballs.
Credit: Courtesy of The Florida Section
Student affiliates from Florida Southern College helped kids at Kingsford Elementary make superballs.

While driving on the new york thruway on Oct. 19, ACS President William Carroll stopped to get a toll ticket. He grinned right at the attendant and said, "Happy National Chemistry Week!" The attendant appeared bewildered-exactly the kind of person the annual chemistry outreach effort aims to reach.

Thousands of volunteers gather at schools, malls, universities, museums, and even zoos and state fairs across the country during NCW to promote the positive impacts that chemistry has on everyday life. This year, the theme was the "Joy of Toys," and Carroll decided to put his own "extreme" twist on the annual NCW festivities. NCW officially fell on Oct. 1622, but Carroll got started on his 14-stops-in-10-days tour a couple of days earlier and continued through Mole Day (Oct 23).

Why go extreme? Carroll had three goals: to highlight the importance of chemistry and science education; to promote an ACS pilot program for establishing chemistry clubs in high schools; and to raise money for Project SEED, the ACS program that provides summer laboratory internships for economically disadvantaged high school students. Carroll visited students in communities across the country and in Puerto Rico. He zigzagged by plane and car. Along the way, he reached out to as many other people as possible with Internet radio and-firsts for ACS-podcasts and an ACS president's daily blog on

The ACS Committee on Community Activities (CCA) oversees nationwide community outreach activities such as NCW and Chemists Celebrate Earth Day. The Office of Community Activities in the ACS Membership Division was one of many ACS offices instrumental in helping Carroll plan and execute his travels.

NCW is a wonderful way of reaching out to kids to show them that science can be fun and that science and chemistry make a lot of positive contributions to our quality of life, says Michael V. Mautino, CCA's chair and NCW coordinator for Pittsburgh's local section.

"Our target audience is the fourth- to sixth-grade crowd because research tells us that this is when kids are starting to form their idea of what they want to do in life. Maybe they haven't verbalized it, and of course, no one is asking them to pick their major, but that is when you have a lot of influence," he adds.

"This is our opportunity to show them the positive part and get them excited about careers in chemistry." He explains that although it's great to spark kids' interest in science as a career, educating people "to think and question, to use the scientific method," and to become more scientifically literate consumers is an equally important part of the outreach effort. Mautino says that many NCW programs and events are now geared to capture a wide, diverse audience, especially female and underrepresented minority students.

Mautino praised Carroll's efforts and those of the ACS staff members involved in the Extreme Tour. "I think it brought a lot of excitement back to the event," he says, which started as National Chemistry Day in 1987. In addition, Carroll raised nearly $10,000 for Project SEED.

NCW got congressional attention this year. On Oct. 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution, H. Res. 457, recognizing the week of Oct. 1622 as National Chemistry Week. Through the resolution, the House recognized "that the important contributions of chemical scientists and engineers to technological progress and the health of many industries have created new jobs, boosted economic growth, and improved the nation's health and standard of living."

The resolution was sponsored by Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), the two Ph.D. scientists currently serving in the House of Representatives. Reps. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), John W. Olver (D-Mass.), and 12 other members cosponsored the bill, including House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Ranking Democratic Member Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

In a statement, Holt spoke about this year's theme: "Toys spark imagination; imagination fuels innovation. It is in the best interest of our nation to create both a curiosity and a desire to understand our world and to fuel a technologically and scientifically literate, critical-thinking population to carry us forward in the 21st century."

Ehlers added: "At a time when our workforce is in great need of increased scientific and mathematic literacy, it is important to stimulate children's interest in the chemical sciences so that they will consider careers in these fields and potentially discover the innovations of the future. What better way to stimulate interest than with something fun like National Chemistry Week and 'The Joy of Toys'?"

Credit: Photo by Steven Falling (left), photo by Gerard Taylor (right)
Mystical Fourth-graders watch a dry-ice demonstration by the Northeast Tennessee Section at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport. At Louisiana State University's Field House in Baton Rouge, Steve Gagnon of BASF demonstrates the formation of polyurethane foam.
Credit: Photo by Steven Falling (left), photo by Gerard Taylor (right)
Mystical Fourth-graders watch a dry-ice demonstration by the Northeast Tennessee Section at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport. At Louisiana State University's Field House in Baton Rouge, Steve Gagnon of BASF demonstrates the formation of polyurethane foam.

PLANS FOR an NCW theme take shape years in advance. "We try to tap into events that are going on around the world so we have another way of leveraging what's happening," says Robert de Groot, chair of CCA's National Chemistry Week Subcommittee and NCW coordinator for the Southern California Local Section. But this year's theme heralded a break from the news. "We wanted to pick something to emphasize the playfulness of chemistry and demonstrate that many toys can be used to teach powerful ideas in chemistry," de Groot says.

The theme might have been toys, but the audience was "K to gray," de Groot says. "We really look at the broadest spectrum and appeal of outreach when designing NCW themes."

To encourage wide participation, ACS holds two national contests in association with NCW. Students in kindergarten through grade 12 can create posters that would serve as a public-service announcement for their peers emphasizing the role of science and chemistry in toys, including toy materials or toy safety through chemistry. Contest coordinators for this year's poster contest gave special attention to the National Science Education Standards so teachers could effectively work the contest into their curricula. Students may submit entries until Dec. 30. All entries will be on display and judged at the ACS national meeting in Atlanta next spring. Winners will be notified by April 14, 2006. First and second prizes will be awarded in each of four grade categories.

Undergraduate students in affiliate chapters can compete in Chemvention, a problem-solving contest. This year's challenge was "to create a toy that teaches a concept of chemistry," according to the NCW website. To help ensure fair competition, the materials used must cost less than $250. Participants were required to submit an electronic report by Dec. 2. Five affiliate chapters will be chosen as finalists, and these groups will be encouraged to present posters of their projects at the SciMix event at the Atlanta meeting. Air Products donated the grand prize: $2,000 to be used toward the purchase of a computer system for the winning chapter. The remaining groups will each receive four graphing calculators donated by Texas Instruments.

Other elements of ACS and the chemical community also contributed to the success of NCW. rearranged its website to emphasize NCW. Local sections distributed more than 186,000 copies of Celebrating Chemistry, the annual NCW publication. Sixty thousand copies of ChemMatters, a quarterly publication aimed at high school students, were distributed, and the Journal of Chemical Education put out a special issue. In addition, the ACS Publications Division allowed free access to some of its journal articles.

Donations from various companies helped to support activities in local sections. Sections also teamed up with other organizations, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers.

ACS staff in Washington kicked off NCW with an in-house reception and visited local students. On Oct. 17, nine volunteers from ACS staff and the Chemical Society of Washington did demonstrations for 100 students at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. On Oct. 18, 25 volunteers from ACS and the American Chemistry Council gave demonstrations and set up hands-on activities for 300 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders at D.C.'s Lucy Moten Elementary School.

The ACS Office of Community Activities asked local sections to summarize their NCW activities. Most sections explored the polymer properties of toys by making oodles of slime, gak, Silly Putty, and bouncy balls. Several collected toy donations, which was the NCW unifying event. Following are some highlights.

Credit: Photo by Jeff Johansen (left), photo by Julie Elaine Switzer (center), photo by Jeff Johansen (right)
In the Indiana Section, students of all ages learned about polymer properties by making this classic goo (from left), a boy tried to blow the biggest bubble, and a Delta High School teacher welcomed Mr. Potato Head's participation.View Larger Image
Credit: Photo by Jeff Johansen (left), photo by Julie Elaine Switzer (center), photo by Jeff Johansen (right)
In the Indiana Section, students of all ages learned about polymer properties by making this classic goo (from left), a boy tried to blow the biggest bubble, and a Delta High School teacher welcomed Mr. Potato Head's participation.View Larger Image

LOCAL SECTIONS in Ohio continued their tradition of strong participation. On Oct. 15, 800 people of all ages converged on the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. Volunteers from the Cleveland Section invited visitors to experiment with and learn about the chemistry behind classic and popular toys such as the drinking bird, fortune-telling fish, and Cartesian divers. Participants also discovered that golf balls sink and most bowling balls float.

In addition, 70 hands-on programs were presented at libraries, schools, and other locations in the Cleveland area. At these events, children made their own sidewalk chalk. Students learned about the composition of toy materials, states of matter, density, and pH, and had a "blast" learning about the chemical reactions behind Alka-Seltzer rockets. Two training workshops for teachers at the Cleveland Regional Council of Science Teachers' fall conference and contests for students in grades K-12 rounded out the festivities.

Among the activities at the Centerville Library in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 22, the Dayton Section examined the structures of polymers that shrink when heated. The Upper Ohio Valley Section conducted demonstrations at the Grand Central Mall in Vienna, W.Va., on Nov. 5.

Other Midwestern sections participated as well. The Wisconsin Section held its opening events on Oct. 16 and finales on Oct. 22 at Toys R Us stores on the east and west sides of Madison. Kids investigated the inner workings of Etch-a-Sketch and MagnaDoodle drawing toys and made their own petri dish version of the Wooly Willy magnetic face toys. They also made "wave bottles" to learn how lava lamps work and "mood patches" to understand heat-sensitive liquid crystals. The section also visited 15 seventh-grade classrooms in two Madison middle schools that week and helped students explore how the liquid-crystal displays found in many handheld games work.

The Northeast Wisconsin Section held demonstrations with chemistry sets and built model polymer chains from magnets. At Discovery World, a science museum for children in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Section discussed flammability of polymer components and fuel for race cars. The LaCrosse-Winona Section sponsored Chemistry Night 2005, where two teams of selected high school students competed to solve a quality-control problem by using analytical instrumentation at St. Mary's University.

Combining their celebration of NCW with the National Year of Physics, the Western Michigan Section hosted "Super Science Saturday" at the Regional Math & Science Center at Grand Valley State University, Allendale, on Oct. 29. An estimated 1,700 attendees participated in hands-on activities and watched 90 volunteers from Grand Rapids Community College, Hope College, and Gentex Corp. explain electrochromic and thermochromic materials; acid-base reactions; and "Genie in a Bottle," which is a catalytic decomposition of magnesium oxide. The volunteers also did liquid nitrogen demonstrations.

Volunteers from Kansas State University held a chemistry magic show and gave demonstrations of scientific glassblowing at the Town Center Mall in Manhattan, Kan., on Oct. 22.

On Nov. 5, 220 volunteers from the Indiana Section brought their ever-popular event to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Butler University Student Affiliates created a giant outdoor periodic table of the elements to greet approximately 4,000 visitors. Dow AgroSciences and Eli Lilly employees helped with demonstrations. On display were many toys from the National Toy Hall of Fame, which is in New York. The display connected toys to the chemistry that has been used to make them; for example, it linked the Frisbee to early manufacturing of high-density polyethylene. Many participants also signed a birthday card for the 50th anniversary of Play-Doh.

In New England, the Northeastern Section continued its strong tradition by sponsoring an NCW Kick-Off Event at the Wellesley College Science Center in Wellesley, Mass., on Oct 16. More than 50 volunteers from Bridgewater State University, Clark University, Emmanuel College, Simmons College, Suffolk University, Tufts University, and Wellesley College gave demonstrations and helped more than 325 visitors with hands-on activities, such as developing nature prints outdoors with light-sensitive paper. Popular demonstrations included the potato clock and a bubble kit. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a well-known showman, captivated 350 children and adults alike during two shows as part of the Phyllis A. Brauner Memorial Lectures. Along with the Suffolk student affiliates, hundreds of toy donations were collected.


Among the Northern New York Section events, Clarkson University professor Dana M. Barry presented a workshop about polymers to fifth- and sixth-grade students at St. Mary's School in Canton, N.Y. Fellow professor Richard Partch spoke about toxins found in blood to Canton Central and Massena High School students.

At the New York State Museum in Albany, the Eastern New York Section greeted Carroll after his trip on the New York Thruway. Students at the event had a chance to experiment with ink chemistry. They also filled balloons with dry ice to experience firsthand the properties of temperature and pressure.

The Pittsburgh Section put on its traditional two-day event at the Carnegie Science Center in Western Pennsylvania. Student affiliates at 10 colleges along with local high schools, businesses, and professional societies set up a total of 25 demonstration tables.

On the first day, student groups on field trips visited; the second day was open to everyone. With funding from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, 1,150 mostly elementary school students from economically disadvantaged school districts were transported to the event on Oct. 21. The funding also covered the students' admission to the Science Center exhibits.

During an overnight event at the Science Center, 250 Girl Scouts worked toward fulfilling the three requirements for NCW activity patches. First, they attended chemistry demonstrations. Second, the girls interviewed presenters about their careers and wrote about what they learned. Third, they prepared a demonstration kit to bring home and teach a sibling or neighbor.

On Oct. 22, families-from toddlers to grandparents visiting from out of town-came to the center to join in the activities.

In the Erie (Pa.) Section, student affiliates from the University of Pittsburgh, Titusville, and Pennsylvania State University, Erie and Behrend campuses, held demonstrations at the Millcreek Mall in Erie on Oct. 22.

Forty-three volunteers from Rider University and Mercer County Community College in New Jersey participated in the Trenton Section's events, which consisted of demonstrations for 750 students in 29 elementary school classes. Students were dazzled by fake snow made from polyacrylate and by balloons inflating from the reaction of antacids with vinegar. The Princeton (N.J.) Section hosted 125 participants at an open house in Frick Lab on Princeton University's campus on Oct. 21. In total, the section hosted 20 demonstrations and 38 volunteers participated.

Credit: Photo by Fleishman Hillard
Credit: Photo by Fleishman Hillard

In Puerto Rico, students celebrated at the "Festival de Quimica" in San Juan. Among the activities, student affiliates at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, helped Boy Scouts earn chemistry activity patches on Oct. 15.

On the southeastern coast, South Florida Section members held their NCW event at Aventura Mall in Miami on Oct. 15. Demonstration volunteers included 19 teachers and 30 students from local elementary and high schools and student affiliates from Barry University and Florida International University (FIU). Demonstrations included using blocks and a balance to explain equilibrium and density differences. Other demonstrations involved teaching participants about surface tension with soap and water, experimenting with superabsorbent diaper polymers, making chromatography butterflies, and constructing DNA models with pipe cleaners.

Meanwhile, buzzing through Florida, Carroll stopped at FIU to present Wellington High School's chemistry club with the first official charter documents for the new ACS Student Affiliate High School Chemistry Club Program.

At the "Chemistry Day Celebration" held at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, students from the University of North Carolina, Pembroke, challenged participants to play Chemistry Bingo, and students from Meredith College in Raleigh conducted demonstrations.

Georgia sections held many events. In the Middle Georgia Section, student affiliates from several colleges scheduled at least one event for every day of the week, including a southern-style kickoff for all chemistry students called a Low Country Boil. (This dinner is a hearty concoction of sausage, shrimp, potatoes, onions, and corn on the cob, all steamed together with seasonings and eaten from a pile on the table.) The two outreach events with large turnouts were Georgia College & State University's hands-on activities for 100 third- through fifth-graders at John Milledge Academy in Baldwin County and Dames Ferry Elementary School in Jones County on Oct. 17 and "Mole Day at the Mall" for 250 children and parents at Hatcher Square Mall in Milledgeville on Oct. 22.

On Oct. 19, at the Fort Discovery National Science Center Museum in Augusta, the Savannah River Section showed wall-walker toys and a hydrogen-powered model car.

Student affiliates at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, held four days of activities for more than 200 participants. Jacksonville student affiliates held a poster contest. To register for Samford University's (Birmingham) two quiz nights, students had to bring a toy to donate to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Included in the state's Auburn Section events, Tuskegee University student affiliates held a "National Mole Day Contest" on Oct. 21. Not only did students have to guess the number of marbles in a jar, they had to correctly estimate the number of moles of marbles in the jar.

Tennessee's sections got an extra boost of enthusiasm from the state's governor, Phil Bredesen, who echoed the congressional proclamation of NCW in Tennessee.

On Oct. 18 and 19, the Northeast Tennessee Section did a "Celebration of Chemistry" for fourth-graders at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport. Among the displays, students learned about oscillating reactions and watched "hair raising" situations and dry-ice demonstrations. On Oct. 20, the East Tennessee Section presented a chemistry magic show at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that included glow sticks.

In Kentucky, student affiliates from Centre College and Transylvania University helped the Lexington Section perform a chemical magic show at the Children's Museum of Lexington.

Credit: Photo by Eric J. Voss
Credit: Photo by Eric J. Voss

At the St. Louis Science Center in Missouri on Oct. 22, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, students helped the St. Louis Section demonstrate applications of nanotechnology with ferrofluid. They also tested the pH of various soft drinks.

The Oklahoma Section's main activity was held at the Shawnee Mall in Shawnee on Oct. 15. Despite windy weather on Oct. 18, students at Moore High School in Moore pieced together a giant outdoor periodic table.

Along the Gulf Coast, local sections were not deterred from NCW participation by the disruption from the hurricanes. The Northwest Louisiana Section held demonstrations with student volunteers from local universities at the Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, La., on Oct. 21.

The Baton Rouge Section, delayed slightly by the hurricanes' aftermath, still drew more than 1,000 students from elementary through high school to the Louisiana State University Field House on Nov. 12. Volunteers from 13 organizations participated. Syngenta volunteers helped children make polyvinyl alcohol polymer. LSU's Center for Advanced Microstructures & Devices presented "Plastics, Molding & Embossing: Modern Toys and Tiny Microdevices."

Traditionally, Texas sections put on big shows, and this year was no exception. The Texas A&M Section hosted more than 1,000 children and parents at the 18th Annual Chemistry Open House & Science Exploration Gallery on Oct. 22 in College Station. Activities and demonstrations highlighted chemistry, physics, and biology principles. The university's glassblower also did demonstrations.

The South Texas Section had two events: demonstrations at the International Museum of Arts & Sciences in McAllen on Oct. 20 and at the Corpus Christi Museum of Arts & Sciences on Oct. 22.

The Brazosport Section did demonstrations for students at Angleton Middle School in Angleton, Texas. The chemistry behind mood rings was a popular display.

The last stop for Carroll on the Extreme Tour was in Dallas on Oct. 23. The University of North Texas Mean Green Demo Team presented an educational show at the Texas State Fair.

Credit: Photo by John Palmer
The sun was shining on those who turned out for the stage presentation at ChemExpo in San Diego's Balboa Park. View Larger Image
Credit: Photo by John Palmer
The sun was shining on those who turned out for the stage presentation at ChemExpo in San Diego's Balboa Park. View Larger Image

FIVE SECTIONS in California celebrated NCW with various events. The Santa Clara Valley Section appropriately held its festivities at the local Pez & Antique Toy Museum in Burlingame. This small museum is the only place in the world to exhibit all 550 unique Pez candy dispensers produced since 1950.

On Oct. 18, the California Section sponsored a "Family Chemistry Night" at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco. The band Scientific Jam provided live music. Among the demonstrations, Bryan Balazs of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory launched an acrylic-oxygen rocket. Students also learned about plastics recycling and pH through hands-on activities.

The Santa Clara Valley and California Sections teamed up to present educator David A. Katz and "Chemistry in the Toy Store" on Oct. 16 at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland.

Two other sections in California hosted their events at local zoos. Members of the San Diego Section and student affiliates from Southwestern College hosted "ChemExpo" outdoors at Balboa Park in the city. Displays included air pollution control information. Ten colleges in southern California set up at the Santa Ana Zoo to conduct hands-on experiments for kids in the Orange County Section.


On Oct. 15, the Salt Lake Section in Utah illustrated the properties of gases and had "phun" with pH during a hands-on activity session held at the Salt Lake Public Library in Salt Lake City.

In the northwest corner of the country, the Inland Northwest Section and students at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., did demonstrations on campus in Hughes Hall. Students learned the science behind thermochromic pens and photochromic toys, as well as the inner working of toys that are built to expand in water.

On Oct. 22, the Washington-Idaho Border Section celebrated chemistry and Native Youth Day at the University of Idaho. Student affiliates from the university concluded their demonstrations with ice cream prepared with liquid nitrogen.

Although this year's celebration is barely over, ACS staff members along with CCA have begun planning next year's NCW, which will be held Oct. 2228, 2006. The theme will be "Your Home-It's All Built on Chemistry." In 2007, the theme will be "The Many Faces of Chemistry" and will revolve around the diversity of chemists and chemical careers. Volunteers are always welcome.


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