Spotlight on the Chemistry Teaching Team
Written by Peggy Ni - YSP Volunteer
I recently sat down with Carl Franz, who is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Molecular Microbiology Department and head of the Young Scientist Program's Chemistry Teaching Team, to learn more about the kinds of demos he and his fellow volunteers put on and why he dedicates his spare time doing this. In general, the demos can be split into two types. One is metaphorical, in which non-chemical items are used to represent a chemical reaction. For instance, there is a demo, "Toothpick-ase," that teaches the students how enzymes find their substrates. The students' hands are the enzyme, and the toothpicks are the substrate. The enzyme "catalyzes" its substrate when the students use their hands to break the toothpicks. Decreased temperature slows down catalysis, which is symbolized when the students must break the toothpicks in cold water. The second type of demos involves actual chemical reactions, but these experiments utilize common items that can be found around the house. "That way, students can relate to these things, as opposed to having something like sodium dodecyl sulfate," Carl explains. One example Carl says is particularly popular among the students is using hard boiled eggs to tarnish silver, a process that occurs as a result of the sulfur in the eggs which is similar to the atmospheric sulfur that convert silver to a dull, dark color over time. Carl says that the students get really excited by this demo because the results are so visual, allowing them to truly appreciate why, for instance, Grandma polishes the silver every year. Carl has some ideas for future experiments that could possibly be implemented in future outings. One that he's done in the past with a different organization involves collecting french fries from different fast food places and then extracting saturated fat from them. The amount of fat can then be quantitated and compared amongst the various restaurants. This demo goes along perfectly with the other chemistry demos since it is similarly easy for the kids to relate to, as I am sure we all go to fast food places every now and then.
So, why is it so important that there are volunteers willing to be a part of teaching teams like the chemistry one to go on these outings and explain how science works to students? Carl provides some of his reasons that may also resonate with other volunteers. He genuinely likes working with young students and thinks it is a worthwhile goal to perform demos so that students can take away a tidbit of knowledge from them. He admits that he (and, I am sure, most scientists) does hope to convert students into becoming future scientists. But, he believes that it is not the most important thing. Rather, it is crucial to teach students the scientific method and critical thinking skills so that they can intelligently tackle controversial topics such as vaccination, global warming, and evolution. With such a huge divide between people who believe that vaccination is necessary and that global warming and evolution occur versus those who maintain that it is not important or that they do not exist, it's important for these kids – many who will be leaders of the next generation – to sort out what is true and then implement sound science policy. Even if the kids don't have careers directly related to science in their futures, Carl maintains that what the teaching team teaches is still applicable. "You don't have to be a scientist by career to put the scientific method in your life," Carl says. The hard work and efforts of YSP teaching teams play a huge role in allowing students to navigate the media intelligently and think critically about scientific topics as well as other subjects in general, imparting an invaluable life lesson to these students.