Last year, when the pandemic forced schools to go virtual, Libertyville High School chemistry teacher Sherri C. Rukes was heartbroken to see students struggling with remote education, she says. She worried that the lack of hands-on activities would turn off students’ interest in science.
So in April 2020, Rukes began assembling bags filled with household items for kitchen chemistry and went door to door around the Chicago suburbs delivering the homemade activity kits, particularly to neighborhoods with a large proportion of students from underserved groups.
“I know everyone was having a tough time,” says Rukes, who is a member of the American Chemical Society Chicago Section and the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT). “I was hoping to inspire young kids.”
By the end of 2020, Rukes had logged thousands of miles on her car and distributed more than 3,000 student activity kits. Sometimes a friend would accompany Rukes on the trips so they could load up two vehicles with the activity bags. Other times, Rukes’s 79-year-old mother would tag along, mostly for the drive. “It’s a nice bonding experience with my mom,” Rukes says.
The activity kits were so popular that Rukes began assembling bags for teachers, too, and those quickly grew into large activity boxes. She has so far distributed more than 250 teacher kits, many delivered personally to teachers’ homes and others shipped by mail. Rukes has paid for much of the costs out of her own pocket, but ACS recently gave her a Local Section Innovative Project Grant, which has helped support the endeavor.
Rukes changes the contents of the teacher kits to supplement different lesson plans, but they always include some household items and activities that can be adapted for students at different grade levels. For example, she has included Mardi Gras beads so teachers can demonstrate the concept of polymer chains. She also includes information for teachers about ACS and AACT. “I just want to let them know that there are tools and places to go to get help,” she tells Newscripts. But most importantly, Rukes says, the kits are filled with a teacher’s love.
“I feel so much joy and gratification that I’m helping someone,” she says.
Rukes says her home has turned into a production facility of sorts, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. And she feels even more connected to her local community than ever before.
Lessons from pop culture
Educators often feel that they’re competing with many distractions for students’ attention. Now, researchers show that these distractions, such as video games, TV shows, movies, and other pop culture references, can be used to engage students in science (J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00233).
For example, says lead author Nicolas Dietrich, an associate professor at the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA) of Toulouse, educators can create an activity in which students use simple chemical reactions to create solutions that resemble the potions found in the video game Fortnite. Or they could use angry-looking characters from the video game Angry Birds as clay models representing dangerous pathogens in drinking water.
He encourages educators to get creative in how they connect pop culture to chemistry and to challenge their students to think critically about the science they see in popular culture. “You need to unleash the curiosity of the student,” he tells Newscripts.
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The caption for the photo of Sherri Rukes was updated on March 22, 2021, to indicate that Rukes is an ACS Volunteer of the Year and that the kit was for National Chemistry Week 2020.