The Middlebury Campus

Science Spotlight: Alchemistry pHun!

By Toby Aicher

The fact that each chemical equation scribbled on a blackboard often translates into a spectacular, real life occurrence is easily underappreciated. For instance, eyes may glaze over when they see the equation 2H2O2 -> 2H2O + O2, and one would not expect to be amazed to witness the reaction. But when chemistry student Cece Burkey ’15 demonstrated the experiment by filling a carved pumpkin with hydrogen peroxide and a catalyst, the chemicals expanded rapidly into hissing colored foam called elephant toothpaste, which burst out from the eyes and mouth of the pumpkin.

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, Burkey, along with students Alex Scibetta ’14, Peter Hetzler ’14, Shannon Reinhart ’15, David Stillman ’14, and Associate Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry Roger Sandwick are holding an event called Alchemistry pHun to bring this chemical reaction and many others alive for local kids and College students.

The five students will act as different famous scientists, don a costume, and perform a variety of interesting chemistry experiments, such as the above elephant toothpaste experiment.

“[The five students are] organizing and handling everything, which is a bit different from previous years,” Sandwick said.

Each of the students is selecting two or three chemistry reactions to perform, which they are going to weave into a story.

Sandwick explains that they are choosing “experiments and reactions we know happen and we’ve always wanted to do but we’ve never had a chance to do. A few are things past professors have done for us.”

The students were still finalizing the reactions, and a few are trade secrets, but the ones they revealed promise to be exciting. One student joked that “we sent out a brainstorming email and next to my name was just the word explosives.” The group mentioned using liquid nitrogen, creating a methane canon, exploding a piñata and lighting a hydrogen balloon on fire.

“[The goal is] to get elementary and middle school kids interested, show them how cool chemistry can be, and get them to question what is happening,” Sandwick said.

This year’s Alchemistry pHun event is the latest in a series of chemistry outreach events held by the College’s chemistry department.

“In my general chemistry class we went out to the elementary schools and split up and went into different classrooms,” Burkey said. “So if you count each [of those] as a show there have been a lot of them.”

The group believes chemistry demonstrations are important in encouraging kids’ interest in science.

“A lot of these little kids have no idea about the science behind what is happening,” said Reinhart. “But if you just ask them what they think is happening, they will start thinking about it, and asking questions. I think that this is one of the most important things in terms of getting kids excited about learning.”

In the past the chemistry demonstrations in McCardell Bicentennial Hall have attracted a large amount of interest from the community.

“In BiHall at night this will be the fifth show,” Sandwick said. “The very first show filled the room and people couldn’t get in. People were mostly from the community and there weren’t many college kids. But I think these guys will attract more.”

The event targets local kids and the community, but this year the team also hopes to draw more students from the College.

“We’ve advertised in the Addison papers, and we’ve contacted all sorts of schools. But the advertisement is also focused more on campus than the previous times,” Sandwick said.

The event is likely to fill up quickly, so on Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m. come early to Lecture Hall 216 in McCardell Bicentennial Hall to enjoy the ingenuity of these students as they demonstrate chemistry at its most interesting.

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