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It all started in 2005. I was co-teaching a college forensic science class with a colleague from the psychology department, and she asked if I would teach a lesson about fingerprinting and handwriting analysis to her son’s fifth-grade class. Off I went, a bit nervous, but looking forward to it nonetheless.

The lesson went well — so well, in fact, that the kids wanted to keep going even after the dismissal bell had rung. They loved the hands-on activities, delighted in working to solve a mystery, and wanted more. Meanwhile, I had the time of my life! Why had no one ever told me how much fun it was to teach science to kids? Why wasn’t teaching college students this much fun? I began to wonder how could I do this more often.

At the time, I wasn’t ready to shift from college teaching. Instead, I focused on finding volunteer opportunities for my students to start engaging with K-8 learners. My first personal volunteer opportunities started a couple of years later, with my son’s kindergarten class. When I approached his teacher and asked if I could come in to do science activities with the children, she welcomed me with open arms. I was granted the freedom to come to class as often as I could, and the teacher was open to any activities I would bring. All of the experiments I brought to these kids were educational, hands-on, and fun.

Big insights about little learners

I quickly learned some hard lessons in working with five-year-olds. I will never forget the time while working outside, when one little boy decided it was easier to relieve himself at the nearest tree rather than to run inside to use the bathroom! I realized that it was essential to reassure the children that they would not miss any of the fun if they had to go use the bathroom!

I also learned that children are natural little chemists, excited to wear safety glasses and mix things together. During one of my first visits, I focused the students on observing the differences between solids, liquids, and gases using vinegar and baking soda experiments. Once they had their safety glasses on, the children previewed the materials and we discussed the properties of each. We also discussed examples of gases such as those found in the air we breathe or used to inflate balloons.

I kept the discussions short, as the children were antsy to get started with the experiments. The children then mixed the vinegar and baking soda in plastic cups and saw the reaction for themselves. I had previously set out the supplies for each child in their own small container filled with baking soda and a spoon, small container of vinegar, plastic pipet, and plastic cup in which to mix the two.

Great reactions

At first, the children were a bit shy about mixing the materials, but once they got going, they did not want to stop! They wanted to see what would happen if they added other materials. Water and soap soon made their way into the mixtures, which led to much delight. I was thankful that I had set everything up on trays that could be cleaned up quickly and easily!

I ended the lesson with a couple of demos showing what we could do with the carbon dioxide gas that is created in the reaction. First, I carried out the baking soda and vinegar reaction in a bottle with a balloon attached to it, so the children could observe the gas inflate the balloon (Figure 1). Check out the AACT Classroom Resource Library for more on this demonstration at: Inflating a Balloon with Chemistry.

I then repeated the reaction in a bottle with a cork, showing the children that I could delay the reaction slightly by placing the baking soda in a tissue when placing it in the bottle, allowing enough time to place the cork on the bottle before the gas formed and escaped. The children loved seeing the cork pop out of the bottle so much that they kept asking to repeat the experiment for months after that visit.

Figure 1. The progression of the baking soda and vinegar reaction, a popular demonstration with the author’s young students.

Professionally, I put my energies into finding ways to teach my college students the impact of volunteerism on increasing hands-on science experiences for students in classrooms. I was fortunate to be teaching at a small university that has a big emphasis on community engagement (CE) courses, and I was therefore greatly encouraged and supported in creating a new CE science course with an emphasis on teaching science to children.

Building momentum

When I introduced the Science in Action class in the fall of 2008, five students enrolled. We spent the first part of the semester learning about the best practices in working with children, and prepared a variety of experiments for use with them. Since one of the goals of the course was to ensure that the college students were prepared to work with children in K-8 classrooms, we spent time determining how to adapt experiments for various age groups.

For example, I showed the students how the baking soda and vinegar experiment could be modified so that children in K-3 could focus on the properties of solids, liquids, and gases, while children in fourth and fifth grade could focus on the differences between physical and chemical changes. Middle school students could use a baking-soda-and-water solution as an indicator to determine the acid strength or concentration in different liquids such as orange juice, lemon juice, and vinegar.

About halfway through that first semester, the students and I started our work with a local elementary school, each of us partnering with a different class in kindergarten through third grade, once a week, for 45-60 minutes. We still met as a class twice a week to debrief on our weekly experiences, plan more experiments, and prepare our materials.

We ended the semester by inviting the kids and their teachers to our campus to do experiments in our labs. The children were excited to go to college for a day, even if it was only for two hours! We split the classes into small groups and had them rotate through five stations, each hosting a different experiment for the children to experience.

For our grand finale, we demonstrated the Elephant’s Toothpaste reaction, which combines 30% hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, and food coloring in a Florence flask, with a potassium iodide solution added as the catalyst. The kids loved watching the foam spewing from the flask! AACT has a modified version of this demonstration called Giant Toothpaste. It includes a video and uses 3% hydrogen peroxide, rather than 30%.

Figure 2. Elephant’s Toothpaste demonstrates the formation of foam during the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide when a potassium iodide solution is added to an Erlenmeyer flask containing 30% hydrogen peroxide, food coloring, and dish soap.

Science in Action was such a great experience for my college students that the class grew quickly. In the second year, we had 12 students enrolled, and by the third year, 22 students were in class. In its fifth year, we were offering the class every semester with an enrollment of 20 to 25 students. Meanwhile, we also increased the number of schools with which we were able to partner, and started having our end-of-semester science extravaganzas on site at some of the schools, so that more children could participate. For one of our partner schools, the end of the semester event became their annual Science Day, and all of their classes participated, whether or not they had worked with a Science in Action student throughout the semester.

Acquiring skills

The college students taking the Science in Action course gained many skills and insights. Among other things, they learned:

  • How to plan a lesson from start to finish based on learning standards, and make sure that all of the children in the class would have a chance to participate and learn from the experience.
  • How to focus on safety and make all necessary precautions for their hands-on activities.
  • The importance of testing demonstrations (multiple times if needed) to ensure that the procedures work as expected, and can be explained correctly and simply to young students.

My students also learned to collaborate effectively with teachers at all levels. While most teachers asked them to bring in experiments that tied into the units they were currently covering with the children, a few teachers gave free reign, letting my students plan for any age-appropriate topic during their weekly visit. In some classes, the teachers asked the students to carry out the exact experiments that the teachers would have used on their own. In other cases, the students presented the material and ran the experiments with the entire class at once, while in others, they set up a science station and met with one small group at a time.

The collaborations worked well and were wonderful learning experiences for all involved. The children loved the hands-on experiments (the messier the better!) as we sometimes learned the hard way! Most teachers enjoyed the opportunity to mentor a college student and appreciated having someone else set up, guide, and clean up science experiments. In addition to all of the skills mentioned previously, the college students learned that great hands-on science experiments can be done inexpensively with easily-obtained materials from local dollar stores or grocery stores.

Passing the torch

Ten and a half years later, Science in Action is still going strong. It’s now co-taught by two of my colleagues who took it over when I moved on to another role. The collaborations have expanded to include more local schools. Science in Action is now providing science activities and support to another on-campus outreach program that focuses on literacy. The course remains a popular elective for science majors and it has become a required course for Liberal Studies majors planning to pursue a career in education.

Over the years, several science majors have realized that they have a passion for teaching after taking this course and have gone on to become credentialed teachers as a result. Many have reached out and proudly told me about the science curriculum in their classes, and how they incorporate hands-on experiments as often as possible. Knowing that I played a role in preparing future science teachers is just as exhilarating as experiencing the pure joy of a child carrying out an exciting science experiment!

If you are looking for local collaborators to bring more hands-on science activities into your classroom, the AACT Science Coaches Program pairs chemists with AACT teacher members. Through this program, teachers have the opportunity to form a valuable relationship with a coach who will volunteer in their K-12 science classrooms. If your school is near a college or university that emphasizes community partnerships, it might also be possible to find science student volunteers who are already looking for opportunities to work with you and your students!