An explosion of interest

UWL students Rachel Butler and Andrew Pitney demonstrate the “magic” of chemistry with this trick. Kids from Schuh Homes Boys and Girls Club race to pack styrofoam packing peanuts into two different containers — one filled with acetone and one filled with water. The winner quickly emerges as the packing peanuts immediately dissolve in the acetone, which shows principles of solubility and organic chemistry.

Chemistry and Biochemistry Club demonstrates cool magic, a.k.a chemistry, to area kids

Mix hydrogen peroxide and soap. What do you get?

About 100 elementary school kids wondering how that “magic” worked.

UW-La Crosse’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Club members call the mixture — an explosion of puffy foam — elephant toothpaste. It’s one of many tricks they have tucked up their sleeves to share with area kids throughout the school year.

UWL students and faculty advisors in the club organized a Halloween-themed Chemistry Magic Show at UW-La Crosse in October that attracted about 100 kids. Watch the local news coverage. UWL students also take their show on the road, traveling to where kids congregate, such as area schools and the Children’s Museum of La Crosse. In March, they brought a magic show to a local Boys and Girls Club — Schuh/Mullen Homes.

“All of the kids there were actually genuinely interested in it,” says Janek Walker, UWL biochemistry major and secretary for the club. “We’re giving everyone an opportunity to see how cool science is.”

UWL students Elizabeth McMahon, seated; Brandon Noble; and Kathleen Becker guide kids from Schuh Homes Boys and Girls Club in making “oobleck” as part of a travelling magic show in March. “Oobleck” is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means its viscosity varies based the stress or force applied. The trick demonstrates fluid dynamics.

The group also hopes their efforts encourage more young people to consider a future in chemistry, particularly kids in traditionally under-represented groups in sciences, says Basudeb Bhattacharyya, associate lecturer of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a faculty advisor to the group.

UWL student Elizabeth McMahon, the club’s next president, remembers her enthusiastic middle school and high school chemistry teachers who “would do cool experiments” – sometimes lighting things on fire. It’s what initially piqued her curiosity about chemistry.

“Even if these kids don’t want to go into a science field, I hope we can still inspire that passion and curiosity about how things work,” she says.

A kid’s science education connection in UWL history

Another scientist who engaged kids through fun experiments was UWL Alumnus Donald Herbert, ’40. Also known as “Mr. Wizard,” Herbert conceived, wrote, starred in and produced the NBC hit series “Watch Mr. Wizard,” which ran from 1951 to 1965. Herbert became known as “America’s Favorite Science Teacher” by millions of admiring viewers for 14 consecutive years, according to the Mr. Wizard Studios website.

UWL Assistant Professor Nadia Carmosini, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, and UWL student Justin Wedal demonstrate the properties of liquid nitrogen.

Chemistry and Biochemistry Club

UWL’s Chemistry and Biochemistry club is always looking for new members. In addition to outreach, the group provides students networking opportunities with professionals in the chemistry and biochemistry fields who regularly speak to the group. To learn more about the group contact Chemclub@uwlax.edu.

The group plans to continue chemistry magic shows next school year and is now applying for a grant from the American Chemical Society to purchase chemistry kits to give away to kids at future chemistry shows.

Chemistry and Biochemistry Club 2016-17 officers and advisors:

  • President: Nicole Nelson (senior, graduating May ’17)
  • Vice-President: Hannah Piper (senior, graduating May ’17)
  • Secretary: Janek Walker (senior, graduating May ’17)
  • Treasurer: Elizabeth (“Hatch”) McMahon (currently a junior)
  • Outreach/Volunteer Coordinators: Kathleen Becker (currently a junior) and Brandon Noble (senior, graduating May ’17)
  • Historian: Andrew Pitney (currently a junior)
  • Advisors: Nadia Carmosini, Ben Haenni, Basu Bhattacharyya