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STEM-ucation in the time of the coronavirus

by Melissa Gilden
May 9, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 18


Chemistry class in the kitchen

A photo of Jonte Lee in his kitchen transformed into a chemistry classroom.
Credit: Courtesy of Jonte Lee
Kitchen chemistry: Jonte Lee transformed his kitchen into a chemistry classroom for Instagram.

Online classes can be tough for today’s quarantined high schoolers. Hours in front of the same laptop, with no tactile stimulation or socializing, can beget distraction and loss of motivation. But if there’s one thing teenagers can give their undivided attention to, it’s social media.

Educator Jonte Lee barely used Instagram until a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus hit Washington, DC. Lee, who teaches chemistry and physics at Calvin Coolidge High School (not far from Newscripts headquarters), tells Newscripts he “was forced to get a little more creative in finding multiple ways” to reach his students. So he turned his kitchen into an impressive at-home chemistry lab and learned how to use Instagram Live.

Instagram Live is a feature on the photo- and video-oriented social media app Instagram that allows users to broadcast live video. Lee says he chose Instagram Live because of the features. He’s able to do real-time Q&As and read students’ comments, as well as let students view one another’s comments.

Lee says that when he was a student, seeing engaging experiments helped him see that chemistry can be applicable outside school. So he says he’s trying to “show them how chemistry is used in their everyday lives.”

From his kitchen, Lee has supplemented his lessons on states of matter with a video of him handling dry ice (which immediately goes from a solid to gaseous state), and his lessons on chemical versus physical reactions by mixing sugar and baking soda and setting it on fire, producing an explosion of foam known as a fire snake. His kitchen lab is very DIY: he uses standard, at-home chemistry demo kits along with glasses and bowls as substitutes for beakers.

The response to his Instagram Live videos has been great from both students and the general public, he says. Despite the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, his students’ grades this term have been better than previous terms; no student earned less than a C. In addition, he says that he has “parents logging in from San Francisco to Maine” to ask him questions. So he started promoting his videos on different social media sites. As a result of the positive response, he says, he plans to continue the videos through the end of the year and over the summer.

Lee also answered the one burning question this Newscriptster has: If you’ve turned your kitchen into a lab with chemistry equipment blocking your stove and oven, where do you cook? He says he has become an expert at cooking on a portable, plug-in griddle.


The show must go online

Between Tiger King and Love Is Blind, there’s certainly a lot of interesting content to watch while cooped up at home. But what show could possibly be more exciting than 50 scientists from around the world presenting their favorite topics online? In places like Washington, DC; Norwich, England; and Canberra, Australia, loads of scientists are sharing their knowledge from home using ­the hashtag #GlobalScienceShow on Twitter.

A screenshot of a tweet from the Global Science Show.
That's showbiz: The Global Science Show gave a platform to scientists like Roshan Achal to talk about their favorite topics on Twitter.

The “show,” which debuted April 24, involved the account @GlobalSciShow retweeting 5 min videos filmed in the homes of over 50 scientists all over the world. The scientists talked about a topic of their choice. Clips included @TheSmilentist’s illuminating video about the physics behind fluorescence (shown), @ImprovementGeek’s psychology-oriented video about why it’s so hard to take criticism, and @Sci_In_Disguise’s refreshing demonstration of friction using telephone books and a pull-up bar.

@GlobalSciShow is the brainchild of Sam Langford, a Scotland-based science communicator. Langford also runs the Socially Distant Science Quiz—a weekly virtual pub quiz all about science. He conducts the quiz on Mondays using the Zoom teleconferencing platform, and would-be participants can get an invite by filling out an online form at

The Global Science Show is going live again on Friday, May 22. To sign up to be a part of the show, you can fill out the Google doc at

Melissa Gilden wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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