Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

cabbage_exp_c“So this is a solution of calcium ions. Has anyone ever heard of calcium before?”

The children nodded their heads and let out a few tentative “yeses”.

“You have. Good. Where do we get calcium?”

“Cows!” my daughter shouted out.

Well, it’s clear she’s being raised in Wisconsin. I’m not sure that your typical chemist would reply “cows” when asked where we find calcium.

Muffled laughter from the adults broke out here and there, but the graduate student presenter didn’t miss a beat. “That’s right. Cows give us milk, and there is calcium in milk.”

We were attending a traveling demonstration presented by SPICE, “students participating in chemical education”, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The presentation was held Saturday at the local library; it was free and open to the public.

The demonstrations were simple, illustrating a couple of the most basic concepts of chemistry—defining a catalyst and electrons. Children’s input and participation was sought. Safety was taught. The chemistry was linked to “real” life—what kinds of everyday things have calcium and potassium in them? How is an electron getting “excited” and jumping out of orbit like jumping up and down?

We saw a “cold” chemiluminescent reaction and then talked about how being able to produce light without generating heat was key for fireflies, jellyfish and other living things that glow—not to mention holiday glow sticks.

There were oohs and ahhs as a flame changed color with the application of strontium, copper and potassium ions, and the highly flammable nature of the sodium ion was demonstrated.

There was nothing difficult or hard or out-of-reach intellectually for anyone in the audience, even the youngest in attendance. Hopefully, these children left this demonstration as ambassadors of science to others—their neighbors, their grandparents, their teachers.

I was really impressed with the innate teaching ability of the presenters—not missing a beat at the seemingly off target comment after the luminol reaction “well, my tiara shines and glows”. “Yes, there is probably something about the arrangement of the atoms in the molecules that make up your tiara that make it sparkle and reflect light.”

Wow. Nice save. Nice tie back to the subject at hand. Even as an experienced college teacher, I’m not sure I could have come up with that.

I love the fact that the our local library is taking advantage of the amazing outreach resources of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, inviting them here to work with our children. I love the fact that my daughter got to meet two graduate students in science, to broaden her view of who a scientist is and what a scientist looks like. Most of all, I’m glad that she is getting the opportunity to learn how to look at the world around her, ask questions and play around to find the answers, because that is real learning and the only kind that is life-long.

© 2013 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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