Evacuate a building because of controlled chemistry experiments, and they just can’t get enough of you.
Ralph A. Zehnder, assistant professor of chemisty, recalled the previous year’s incident (and the students’ hope for his return) at Carroll High School, as he and other ULM chemistry faculty prepare to visit local schools, beginning with National Chemistry Week (Oct. 21 – 27).
Zehnder began the chemistry demonstration at the local classroom by asking who thought science was boring. About one-third raised their hands. Two experiments later—including after the evacuation—he had their attention and no hands went up when he asked the question again.
“We had a piece of sodium metal under a chemistry hood. I placed it in a beaker of water, and the beaker (carefully wrapped so no shards would fly out) exploded.
When the smoke cleared, they immediately asked if we could do that again with a bigger piece. I told the principal that we’d come back this year if allowed. I just spoke to their teacher, and they want us to return. She said the students are still talking about us. The kids look at the permanent hole in the countertop under the hood and ask when we’re coming back.”
He plans to recreate the experiment for this year’s visit to Carroll on Tuesday, Oct. 23, and to West Ouachita High School on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
Zehnder and his colleagues, Buddy Barnett and Joseph Watkins, are visiting local schools, along with two new faculty members, Emad El-Giar and Richard Thurlkill. Among the intended stops during the fall are Carroll, West Ouachita, Richwood, Wossman, West Monroe, St. Frederick High Schools, Ouachita Christian School, and Grace Episcopal School, though there are plans to visit other schools in the parish.
Such activities are encouraged by the American Chemical Society, for which Zehnder serves as community outreach coordinator for this region, but the ULM faculty allow for creative interpretation when it comes to controlled lab experiments.
“The kids love it—if you could see their faces,” Zehnder said. Minor, monitored explosions with liquid nitrogen and Dr. Pepper bottles help account for the enthusiasm, he allows. “Anything that blows up—you will see excitement there.
I mustn’t forget to mention the efforts of our students. They go with us and help us with set-up. They have a great deal of fun as well, and it is incredible how much support we get from our own students.” Zehnder currently has 33 students who have expressed interest in volunteering for the school visits.
“The goal is to get a long-term relationship with these schools. We want to kick it off during National Chemistry week and keep contacting new schools.”
Zehnder said that the ULM staff is also considering giving some of the teachers the opportunity to come to ULM during the summer to do some research.