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National Chemistry Week: Engaging Your Community With Chemistry

by George L. Heard, Chair, Committee On Community Activities
September 29, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 39

Credit: Wyman Tannehill
George L. Heard, Chair, Committee On Community Activities.
Credit: Wyman Tannehill

“I hate chemistry.” Those are words I dread hearing.

A few months ago, a colleague introduced me to the new superintendent of my city’s public schools with this very phrase. Fortunately that declaration was not the end of my colleague’s sentence; it was followed by “but when I see what his students are doing, I want to do it too!” My colleague was referring to an outreach activity she attended in which middle school students were doing hands-on activities while college students talked to them about the chemistry involved and careers in science.

Now is the time of year when volunteers gather to improve the public perception of chemistry. Many of their efforts take place under the umbrella of National Chemistry Week, which is coming up on Oct. 19–25 ( Every year, I am amazed by the creativity and enthusiasm that our outreach coordinators and volunteers share in bringing chemistry to the community in a fun, safe, and effective way.

The American Chemical Society Committee on Community Activities (CCA) would like to hear from you about how your events turn out. Please write to us at Last year we had reports of 3,606 volunteers bringing chemistry to more than 77,000 members of the public, and that was with only one-third of the coordinators reporting back!

This year’s theme, “The Sweet Side of Chemistry—Candy,” gives you an opportunity to draw in the public with the promise of learning more about what goes into sweets and treats and also to use candy as a medium for showing some of the many wonders of chemistry.

Credit: George Heard
Simple demonstrations—such as an activity that lifts the dyes and letters off M&M candies—are a great way to share the fun of chemistry with the public.
M&M’s with their dyes dissolved in water.
Credit: George Heard
Simple demonstrations—such as an activity that lifts the dyes and letters off M&M candies—are a great way to share the fun of chemistry with the public.

I recently attended the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, where I explained the Floating Letters activity that appears on page 9 of this year’s edition of Celebrating Chemistry, ACS’s kid-friendly, hands-on activity publication for exploring important chemistry topics. In this experiment, if you place two M&M candies in lukewarm water, the colored dyes coating the candies dissolve but form an interface giving a clear line of separation between the two colors. Leave them for longer, and the insoluble M detaches and floats to the surface. Conference attendees were running to the meeting’s snack table to find M&M’s to try the experiment for themselves.

Outreach can be as easy as that. With some candies and plastic cups, you can get the public talking about and exploring chemical concepts. Other inexpensive, hands-on outreach activities, along with Celebrating Chemistry, the Floating Letters activity, and details on how to get involved in your community, can be found at

And remember, it’s never too late to run an event! CCA realizes that outreach is a year-round effort, and this year the committee began offering minigrants to support outreach during times that do not fall around National Chemistry Week or Chemists Celebrate Earth Day. Thanks to all who submitted applications. For this year, 10 grants worth up to $500 each were made available. The submission period ends on Sept. 30, and the awardees will be notified in November. Inquiries can be made to

You can support National Chemistry Week beyond the outreach component. Every year we offer prizes for K–12 students who create an illustrated poem based on the celebration’s theme, and local volunteers are needed to identify the best poems. The community event takes advantage of the proximity of National Chemistry Week to Halloween and encourages you to donate candy (maybe the leftover candy from your events) to a food bank or a service that provides candy to community members serving overseas.

Coming up soon will be the opportunity for your local section to recognize leaders in community outreach with the Local Section Outreach Volunteers of the Year Award. I hope local section leaders will take this opportunity to have their outstanding volunteers highlighted on the Get Involved, Stay Involved website (

Thanks to all volunteers for creating safe and fun events for the community to discover and appreciate the joys of chemistry. Together we can help eliminate the first part of my well-meaning colleague’s statement.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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