“Hot dog! Are you ready for some fun?” asked Dr. Robert Miller, director of the organic chemistry laboratories.

“Yes!” exclaimed 37 Overby-Sheppard Elementary School fifth-grade students.

And fun they had as Miller and six student members of the UR chapter of the American Chemical Society Student Affiliates (ACS-SA) led the children through a chemistry magic show replete with smoke, fire and explosions punctuated by shrieks of delight.

The Chemistry Department collaborated with University Museums, Boatwright Library and the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) to bring the Overby-Sheppard students and their teachers to campus this past summer. Overby-Sheppard is a partner site for Build It, the University’s largest civic-engagement initiative, which is coordinated by the CCE and places UR students as volunteer tutors, mentors, coaches and administrative support in Northside Richmond schools and nonprofits.

“Our students benefit both academically and personally from the time they spend at our community partner sites,” said Build It program manager Cassie Price. “We like to reciprocate by giving our partners the chance to visit our campus.”

This field trip provided that opportunity. The fifth graders started the day on their hands and knees identifying gemstones in the lobby floor of the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature. They oohed and aahed over the fluorescent mineral exhibit. The sheer number of books in Boatwright amazed them.

But the fun factor shot way up when the fifth graders entered a chemistry lab in Gottwald Science Center. Miller’s unbridled enthusiasm and boundless energy spread quickly throughout the room.  

Donning safety goggles, Miller and the ACS-SA students treated the fifth graders to a visual and auditory smorgasbord of experiments demonstrating the chemical properties present in everyday objects, the human body and even the air we breathe.  

The children sat enthralled as a polymer commonly found in living organisms, minerals and manmade products like plastics morphed into something resembling a long red worm.

In an experiment designed to demonstrate the relative flammability of elements, they watched with interest as a flame caused a balloon filled with oxygen to burst with a pop and a second balloon filled with hydrogen to burst with a louder bang. And they screamed in unison when contact with a flame caused a third balloon filled with hydrogen and oxygen to explode with an ear-splitting boom.

The grand finale featured an exploding gummy bear. Glucose, the primary energy molecule in the human body, appears in abundance in gummy bears. The experiment demonstrated how much light, heat and noise can be generated by one tiny glucose-laden gummy bear.

At the conclusion of the program, multiple cries of “hot dog!” attested to its great success.
The children’s response thrilled chemistry major Tran Doan, ’10, who worked with other ACS-SA students to help Miller plan and implement the magic show. “The show demonstrates that science is everywhere and should be a part of our common knowledge,” she said.

Bringing school groups to campus or taking special programs to city schools, such as another chemistry magic show Miller and his students staged at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School this fall, expose inner-city children not only to chemistry but to another world, said Overby-Sheppard principal Susan Stokes. She hopes it will encourage many of her young charges to pursue a college education.  

And it may. The children gushed about their day on campus as they dived into plates piled high with pizza, fries and dessert at the Heilman Dining Center, the final stop on their tour. “I thought the chemistry show would be really boring,” one girl said. “Boy was I wrong!”

Child after child expressed a desire to attend the University of Richmond, which has one of the most generous scholarship programs in the nation. And their anticipated major? Chemistry, of course!

A bright-eyed girl summed up the feelings of many students in the group when she shared her perception of University of Richmond: “It’s heaven.”