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Exposing Kids to Chemistry

ACS outreach program improves science education one child at a time

by Linda Wang
May 5, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 18

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Procell shows fifth-grade students how to make slime.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Procell shows fifth-grade students how to make slime.

CHEMIST SUZANNE PROCELL of the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), in Maryland, says she doesn't mind giving up her lunch hour to make sure that every detail is accounted for in advance of her regular visits to area elementary schools. Sometimes that means scrambling to fill 300 Ziploc bags with activity supplies; other times it means placing last-minute phone calls to round up volunteers.

This year, Procell and her group of approximately 20 volunteers will visit three elementary schools, two to three times each, to do hands-on chemistry experiments with students. "We don't just go to a school and visit one time and then they never see us again," she says. "Part of what we're doing is we're establishing a relationship with the kids, and they get to know us."

For the past 15 years, dedicated scientists like Procell have been sharing their knowledge and passion for chemistry with schoolchildren as part of ACS's Kids & Chemistry program. The goal of the program is simply to improve science education by bringing kids and chemistry together.

"We need to capture the imagination of kids as early as possible in the sciences," says volunteer Alan Samuels, a chemist at ECBC. "This is one opportunity to do that that may make a difference."

Volunteers come from ACS local sections, student affiliates chapters, and corporate employee groups. Their participation can range from doing hands-on activities with students in the classroom to leading activities in informal settings, such as at a science museum or a library.

"It doesn't have to be a big, formal program," says Patricia Galvan, senior education associate for the ACS Education Division, which coordinates the program. "Basically, any effort that teaches kids about science and the joy of science is Kids & Chemistry."

Any chemist can start a Kids & Chemistry volunteer group. Procell started her group in 2000 after attending a Kids & Chemistry training workshop during an ACS national meeting. She recruited eight volunteers from ECBC, and they raised enough money from local businesses to purchase activity kits from ACS and visit a few schools. To date, the group has shared hands-on science with several thousand students through library programs, classroom visits, parks and recreation programs, and home school visits. Most of the volunteers in Procell's group are from ECBC, and many use their days off to volunteer.

THE GROUP still operates on a shoestring budget, with local companies providing the bulk of its funding. The volunteers keep costs down by reusing all of their supplies and mixing their own reagents.

Credit: Pam Farmer
Botto puts on regular magic shows for students. Here he's shown at Sheldon Elementary School in Houston.
Credit: Pam Farmer
Botto puts on regular magic shows for students. Here he's shown at Sheldon Elementary School in Houston.

Teachers say the visits enrich the classroom experience, as the activities reinforce what the students learn in class. "Books are important because they give you that background knowledge, but it's a wonderful opportunity to meet people who deal with science every day," says Amanda Rutherford, a fifth-grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School, one of the schools that Procell and her volunteers visit.

Don Morrison, director of public information for the Harford County Public School System, says the visits by chemists fill a gap. "Elementary school teachers are generalists. They're good at a lot of things, but they're usually not a specialist in any one area," he says. "You're bringing in people who are Ph.D.s, and they're the experts in the field."

Some Kids & Chemistry groups are small, localized efforts while others are large-scale endeavors. Robert I. Botto, a chemist at ExxonMobil, has been leading a significant volunteer effort in the Houston area since the Kids & Chemistry program began in 1993. Last year, his team of nearly 200 volunteers from local companies and the ACS Greater Houston Section visited around 30 schools and did hands-on activities with nearly 8,000 students.

Botto says that ExxonMobil will donate $500 for every 20 hours of volunteer service its employees provide, and last year volunteers raised $5,000 for schools participating in Kids & Chemistry.

Walter O. Siegl, a retired chemist from Ford Motor Co., runs a successful Kids & Chemistry volunteer group in the Detroit area. He says that the activity has attracted many new members to the ACS Detroit Section, particularly women and younger chemists. "Here's a way to come to a professional event where somebody hands you an assignment, sits you down next to other people, and you get to mix with people in a comfortable setting," he says.

Procell acknowledges that there are professional benefits to participating in Kids & Chemistry. For example, she has made many friends at work through her involvement with the program. And she says any personal gain is just icing on the cake: "I'm really doing it for the love of the kids and the love of science and of sharing something I really like and believe in with children."

Volunteer with Kids & Chemistry

Do you teach science lessons to children? Are you looking for new ideas? Then consider contributing to a collection of special event, demonstration, and hands-on activity ideas. This resource is posted on; click on "Volunteer with Kids & Chemistry" under Community Outreach. The site offers teaching tips, hands-on activity ideas, and examples of successful Kids & Chemistry programs. Contact Patricia Galvan at to share your ideas or to find out more about the Kids & Chemistry program.


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