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Gay eyeballs

Making gak eyeballs at Walden School

This last week was our final week of Fall Semester at Walden School, and for their final test my chemistry students planned, practiced, and presented chemistry demonstrations to their peers and to Walden’s elementary classes. Altogether five groups of students presented to the elementary school on Wednesday, Dec. 15 and the rest of the student teams presented on Friday, Dec. 17.

I’ve discussed my rationale for doing this in previous posts: that this is an excellent method for generating excitement about STEM in elementary students as they see their older siblings and high school students working with and presenting science. Certainly the younger students were very excited and attentive; they were eager to participate and asked good questions.

Raising hands

Students at Walden School participating in chemistry demonstrations

For me, though, the real reason for doing anything in my classes is always how it will benefit my students. Taking 3-4 days out of our curriculum to practice and present these demonstrations is hard to justify unless it has strong pedagogical advantages. The justification is this: as my students write up their demonstration scripts and outlines, as they practice talking about the science they are presenting, and as they prepare to answer questions from the audience they are thoroughly learning the chemistry behind their demonstrations. They are going beyond hands-on labs to share what they have learned, and that learning will be indelible.

Karlie and Sofia

Karlie and Sofia demonstrate hand warmers

The topics of the demonstrations had to related to the individual element/materials research project of one of the group members, which they are continuing to work on. Here’s what was presented:

Sofia, Karlie, and Jerry demonstrated the principles behind hand warmers by showing the rapid crystallization of sodium thiosulfate crystals that had been heated and then cooled down. They also talked about crystals in general.

Making gak

Mari and Casey help students make gak

Ryan and Casey, with help from Chelise, Lindsey, and Mari, demonstrated how to make gak (a polymer made out of white glue and borax powder). This is an old standby demonstration, and the kids really enjoyed it.

Copper demonstration group

Genny, Rachel, Jared, and Morgan demonstrate copper's properties

Genny, Rachel, Morgan, and Jared demonstrated aspects of copper chemistry. They handed around samples of copper ore (Rachel’s uncle is an engineer at Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah) and showed a methanol version of a flame test (including copper salts). Jared demonstrated the alchemist’s dream reaction: turning copper into gold (actually brass).

Kinesthetic activity

Sid and Sam use a kinesthetic activity to demonstrate magnetic induction

Sam and Sid, with help from Josh, presented the idea of magnetic induction and discussed how modern electrical generators work. Sam actually built her own alternator and induction coil, and Sid presented on his research about the use of wind power to generate electricity. They also created a fun kinesthetic activity to show induction.

Burning magnesium

Karl and Nicona demonstrate burning magnesium

Karl, Nicona, and Tanner presented on the properties of the elements; they did a flame test as well, and demonstrated what magnesium ribbon looks like when burned and how fireworks get their colors. They also had sparklers for each of the students to try out.

Cabbage pH

Sonora, Dallas, and Morgan demonstrate cabbage pH

In class on Friday, the other groups presented their demonstrations. Sonora, Morgan, and Dallas presented the red cabbage pH demonstration that is one of my favorites.

Untarnishing silver

Mari and Holly demonstrate how to un-tarnish silverware

Courtney, Holly, and Mari showed how to untarnish silver using baking soda and aluminum foil. They even included a correctly balanced chemical equation, although we won’t be learning about those until we return in January.

Dry ice group

Libby, Lindsey, and Chelise demonstrate the properties of carbon dioxide

Chelise, Lindsey, and Libby presented the properties of carbon dioxide gas and dry ice. They showed how regular matches go out in carbon dioxide, but that magnesium burns even brighter when placed in carbon dioxide.

Olivia and Jace

Jace and Olivia explain the ingredients of gunpowder

Jace and Olivia talked about gunpowder, how it is made, and why it is dangerous. Jace has experience working with black powder (he has his own muzzle loader – this is Utah, after all) and he created some raw gunpowder, which he burn outside. They also demonstrated the “fire writing” demonstration of drawing on a piece of paper with a saturated solution of potassium nitrate, then touching a wooden splint to the edges of the writing to see it burn letters through the paper.

Josh and Jess

Josh and Jess demonstrate the principle of density with salt solutions

Josh and Jess presented on salt solutions and how they can be used to determine the density of objects. They showed how an egg will sink in pure water but will float in salt water.

We also videotaped as much of the presentations as we could and took quite a few photos; those students that weren’t helping present helped with the photography.

Burning gunpowder

Burning gunpowder

When their demonstrations were done on Wednesday and Friday, my students were excited about what they had done and the feedback they’d gotten from the younger students. They still have to learn some showmanship and presentation skills (which we’ll continue to work on), but based on what I saw and what the elementary teachers reported, the science content was excellent. They and their peers filled out evaluation forms (and I will as well) so that they can improve on their presentations for the next round in January.

Golden pennies

Golden pennies

It was a lot of work to prepare for this. Now my lab room is a mess and I’ll need to take a day during Christmas break to clean up and re-organize (and I think I forgot to throw out the leftover red cabbage pulp that’s in my trash can, so I’d better go clean up tomorrow). But despite the work and the lost time, I’d say these demonstrations were well worth it. As we go through the second semester, the students will present at least twice more, including a final time at a back-to-school night for their parents. We’ll polish the delivery, add more science explanations, create slide shows and videos to supplement their demonstrations, and by the end of the year these will be incredibly well done.

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   As mentioned in my last post, I am leaving Mountainland Applied Technology College and will be taking up a Fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. I have been selected to be the Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section) Fellow for 2008-09 at CHF, where I will be studying the history of atomic theory, chemistry’s development as a science out of alchemy, and the types of labware and equipment used during the Middle Ages and later. I’ll discuss more about how this fellowship fits into the larger project in future posts, but in this one I’d like to give a final report on Phase I of the Elements Unearthed project as well as describe my four-day drive across the country from Orem, Utah to Philadelphia, PA.

   My students at MATC have completed as much of their projects as was possible before the end of the school year. They are all in a rough cut format, with only the audio tracks laid in in some spots (narration only or audio from our wireless microphone system). In other places, we have video as well but it needs to be color balanced. Other spots have some images but so far the cuts are rough and the story is also. We showed these rough edits in an Alpha test before other students at MATC and had them fill out evaluation forms. Most of the comments were that they liked the information and presentation so far, but that they were too long, a bit dry, and needed more images and animations. This is to be expected when the rough cut for the blown glass project, for example, is 43 mintues long not counting credits. It is my goal to cut it down to two podcast episodes under 15 minutes each, so roughtly 1/3 of the material must go while keeping the storyline intact and improving the video, audio, and imagery. That will be part of my work this summer, to prepare these segments for Beta testing and final deployment on this blog and to iTunes, YouTube, etc.

   Overall the students did very well, learning not only how to plan and execute a video shoot, but also how to research and structure a documentary-style video, how to capture and transcribe the footage, and how to edit the footage using Final Cut Pro. If we had more time, they would have continued the process through beta test, whereupon I would have taken over for final editing. But the year is done, the Media Design Technology program at MATC is now cancelled, and I am in Philadelphia.

Sunset on Lake Erie

Sunset on Lake Erie

   It has  been quite a trip. I had four days to make it to Philly, leaving at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 28 and averaging about 550 miles per day. That’s about nine hours of driving each day, and I am certainly feeling the effects of it now. I took I-80 most of the way, only moving over to I-76 at Youngstown, Ohio. Fortunately the trip went by without major incident. The only bad thing was that one of my contact lenses decided to pop out at about mile marker 80 in Illinois. I pulled over onto the next exit and searched around for 20 mintues before finally finding it. I stayed the first night at Little Thunder Campground on Lake McConaughy, NE; the second night in a motel in northern Davenport, Iowa; and the third night at East Harbor State Park at the tip of Sandusky Pennisula on Lake Erie in Ohio. I had planned out these stops carefully in advance (Google is wonderful!) and everthing worked out – I arrived at the Drexelbrook Apartments in Drexel Hill, PA at 4:30 eastern time on Sunday, May 31, just in time to sign the rental contract.  My wife and children will be flying in today.

Marblehead Lighthouse, Sandusky Penninsula

Marblehead Lighthouse, Sandusky Penninsula

   Even though I was driving, I wasn’t taking a vacation from this project. I took a few detours and took a lot of photos both of scenery and of things related to the Elements Unearthed. One thing I noticed was how energy production technology is such a large part of our landscape. Near Rawlins, Wyoming, for example, is the large Sinclair oil refinery shown here. Lake McConaughy in Nebraska is not only an irrigation lake but generates hydroelectric power. It is becoming all too apparent that neither of these technologies can sustain our energy needs – the sites for hydroelectric power have pretty much been maximized already and crude oil has already passed the point of peak production in the last several years. We are running out of crude oil, and the prices will only escalate until we are well past the high price point of last summer. The average price I found crossing the country was about $2.50 per gallon, and it won’t get better.

 

 

 

Sinclair oil refinery near Rawlins, Wyoming

Sinclair oil refinery near Rawlins, Wyoming

   On an encouraging note, I noticed a huge increase in wind powered generators. New wind turbines are sprouting up all along I-80 and more are being constructed; I saw new turbine blades on the backs of several 18-wheelers as I traveled. There was a new wind farm just west of Evanston, Wyoming and groups of turbines here and there across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Certainly wind is a largely untapped resource, and with new composite materials the turbines can last much longer and generate more power than the first generation of turbines that were installed in the late 1970s.

Wind turbines near Evanston, Wyoming

Wind turbines near Evanston, Wyoming

    Another stop I made was at Elmore, Ohio where Brush Wellman’s Engineered Materials Division operates a plant that refines beryllium hydroxide pellets into final beryllium metal and alloys. The pellets themselves come from the concentration plant near Delta, Utah which my students have already documented (you’ll see the final result by the end of August). Coincidentally, U. S. Highway 6 runs through both towns, and coincides with I-80 for some of its length. It was good to finally get some decent photos of the Elmore plant to add to the beryllium project.

   Now that I am at CHF, I will begin pulling together all the images and other media that I can to tell the background history of the elements – something that my students couldn’t do very easily because there aren’t comtemporary sources or sites that we could go to and film. So this part of the project has to be done by me. Questions I hope to answer are how the Greeks first proposed the ideas of elements and atoms and how these ideas developed through history. I also hope to digitize illustrations and portraits of laboratories and equipment, with the goal of re-creating this equipment in 3D, perhaps even re-building historical laboratories such as those of Lavoisier or Priestley. I hade my orientation yesterday (June 1) and today I will start my researches in earnest.

Brush Wellman beryllium refinery, Elmore, Ohio

Brush Wellman beryllium refinery, Elmore, Ohio

   In my next entry, I wll describe CHF and its parts and functions and the resources that are available here. I am already finding it to be an incredible place for anyone that has a passion about the history of science.

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