Can chemistry be fun? Yes, especially if you concoct elephant toothpaste by combining dish soap, food coloring and hydrogen peroxide in a flask, with a splash of potassium iodide in water, and then moments later watch the mixture erupt out of the flask in a colorful, steaming foam. Kids love the experiment.
In 2017, Rice University became home to the first extension chapter of Fun with Chemistry, an outreach program that uses exciting and educational experiments to inspire K–12 students to pursue careers in STEM.
The Fun with Chemistry program was founded in 2014 by Kate Biberdorf, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. After working with Biberdorf as an undergraduate, Nicole Behnke joined the Rice chemistry department for her graduate studies and started a collaboration to expand Fun with Chemistry. László Kürti, associate professor of chemistry at Rice, is the faculty sponsor. Kürti and Biberdorf secured a $75,000 Welch Foundation grant to support outreach events for both Rice and UT over three years.
The Rice University Fun with Chemistry chapter is managed by graduate students Behnke, Kaitlyn Lovato and Katie Miller with the help of graduate and undergraduate student volunteers.
The mission of Fun with Chemistry is to ignite, inspire and motivate young students to develop a passion for science with the hope that they will pursue careers in STEM. To do this, the program introduces educational topics and then conducts hands-on experiments that reinforce and elaborate on the lesson. The program is designed to appeal to students who are intimidated by science or attend schools that do not have the resources to conduct captivating experiments. Specifically, the program targets schools with high minority and disadvantaged socioeconomic populations.
To reach audiences on campus, the program collaborates with Rice’s Office of STEM Engagement, the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Last summer, Fun with Chemistry teamed up with university-sponsored camps to perform six demonstration shows for more than 200 kids from elementary and middle schools.
Fun with Chemistry also works with teachers to make their classes more interesting. Recently, the group conducted two workshops for teachers in the Rice Elementary Model STEM Lab focused on how to incorporate stimulating and inexpensive experiments into the curriculum. Teachers from more than 50 schools, with an emphasis on Title I campuses, signed up to host Fun with Chemistry events for their students.
For off-campus events, the group travels to one elementary, middle or high school a month. In 2018, Fun with Chemistry visited six schools, reaching approximately 4,200 elementary students in the Houston area. Fun with Chemistry has received widespread success in its first year and has a waitlist for event requests. In the future, the group plans to increase its activities and organize a large outreach event to expand its range of influence in the community.
It’s not only the young students who benefit from Fun with Chemistry. The undergraduate and graduate students who conduct and manage the experiments enhance their communication and leadership skills through the presentations. This invaluable experience allows the volunteers to also mature as scientists.
— Nicole Behnke
Third-year graduate student