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Fostering interest in chemistry

November 20, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 47

I was surprised by Robert L. Wolke's recent editorial suggesting that we should forget chemistry at science centers (C&EN, Aug. 28, page 3). Instead of forgetting chemistry at science centers, we need to get more chemists involved at these centers. As a retired faculty member and volunteer at the Sciencenter in Ithaca, N.Y., I can say from experience that chemistry does have a place at a science center and children can be engaged by chemistry exhibits and activities at these centers.

Although it is difficult to develop interactive chemistry exhibits, I know from experience it is not impossible. When I first became interested in volunteering at the Sciencenter, I was surprised to find that no exhibits involved chemistry. I made it my goal to introduce chemistry to Sciencenter visitors. I began by designing and building two interactive exhibits. Alhough they seemed to be engaging many visitors, they really did not give them a sense of what it is like to do chemistry.

Chemistry, like all sciences, involves experimentation and investigations. Why not present this aspect of our science to visitors? With support from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the ACS Cornell Section, and the museum staff, I developed 10 simple investigations that visitors could try at a table on the museum floor. Each of the activities presented a simple puzzle or challenge for the visitors to investigate. Children saw chemistry as something that was useful and interesting.

They stayed and "experimented" with the chemicals for much longer than the 30 seconds or a minute that typical elementary school age children spend at an exhibit. They called a friend over to try the activity, and many came back a second time to try the activity again. Children can be engaged by chemistry at a science center; it just has to be presented in an interesting and creative way.

There are hundreds of science centers in the U.S., and many of them run a great variety of programs that encompass all of the sciences, including chemistry. The Sciencenter, although small, has visitor and school programs on everything from astronomy to zoology, and this certainly includes chemistry.

Robert Silberman
Ithaca, N.Y.



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