Mini-explosions catalyze student fascination with chemistry during Science Alliance field trip

What do hydrogen peroxide, gummy bears, glycerol, Mentos and household insulation all have in common?

They were all part of a chemistry extravaganza enjoyed by fourth graders at Whittier Elementary School–the culmination of an Science Alliance residency sponsored by the Oak Park Education Foundation and taught by volunteer scientist Dr. Brent Friesen, a chemistry professor at Dominican University.

Dr. Friesen wowed the students with mini explosions, overflowing test tubes and and gloppy messes as he explained the scientific process and the properties of certain catalysts. The experiments all came with whimsical names–“elephants toothpaste,” “Friesen fireworks,” “screaming gummy babies,” “tomato juice rainbow,” and “Gilligan’s boat”–and Dr. Friesen even sang the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song to the bemused and clapping students as he set a paper boat on fire as it floated on a pan of water.

But he reminded the students that chemistry is not just about explosions and fireballs. “Writing and observing is an important part of the scientific process,” Dr. Friesen said. 

Fourth grade teacher Annie Darley, who has been participating in Science Alliance lessons for about 20 years, said Dr. Friesen teaches all aspects of scientific process during multiple visit and experiments in her classroom, but the the field trip to Dr. Friesen’s chemistry lab is always a big hit with her students.

Tristan Kidd, 10, watched each experiment closely and declared, “I want to major in chemistry when I go to college!” He said the chemistry experiments are a lot more interesting than his other science lessons, which are focused of rocks and fossils. “Chemicals are more interesting to me because of the way they react to each other,” said Tristin, who also admitted he loves “to watch things blow up.”

The field trip ended with a hands-on experiment where the student vigorously stirred the ingredients of polyurethane foam in a plastic cup and marveled as the cup grew warm, then the liquid ingredients spilled over the top and finally hardened into multi-colored shapes that resembled large ice-cream cones.

Science Alliance is one of six in-school enrichment programs offered free of charge by OPEF to District 97 students, with the goal of offering hands-on learning and exposure to community experts in various fields.

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