Chemistry Detectives

Chemistry Detectives

September 26, 2013
The chemistry department opens its lab to local students for two days of scientific discovery

For an afternoon in late May, the chemistry department lab hummed with activity, as groups of high school students huddled over various instruments, all of them obsessed with a yellow powder. What was it? What was its molecular make-up? 

The Structure Determination Workshop offered by the Department of Chemistry allowed them to use detective work and some high-tech equipment to determine their answer.

The department created the two-day workshop more than 20 years ago, hoping that giving students and teachers access to equipment and advanced techniques they might not find in their own high school labs, and exposing the students to college-level research would lead to an increased interest in pursuing careers in science.

Ten teachers and 20 high school students with a passion for chemistry from Henrico, Chesterfield, Goochland, and Richmond public schools, spent two days on campus working in Richmond’s chemistry lab, guided by faculty.

The entire chemistry faculty contributed to the workshop’s success by offering lectures and manning individual equipment stations to teach the students and teachers how to use the machinery and what results the equipment would provide. Richmond undergraduate chemistry students also got in on the action, serving as teaching assistants.

The high school students spent their first afternoon in the lab making or isolating a chemical compound under the supervision of Richmond faculty; ultimately, the group was left with a yellow powder. After spending the night in one of the campus dorms, they were back in the Gottwald Center for the Sciences for faculty lectures that prepared them for a day of detective work.

They began by putting the yellow powder through a variety of tests using the lab’s equipment, including a melting point apparatus, an infrared spectrometer, a mass spectrometer, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, and an ultraviolet spectrophotometer. 

As the students rotated around the room, interacting with a professor at each station and learning how to use each piece of equipment, they gained insight into the compound, including its mass, melting point, and how it reacts to different sources of radiation.

The results from each instrument were each pieces of a very complicated puzzle. Workshop organizer and associate professor of chemistry Kelling Donald states, “Molecules have many choices on how to combine a given set of atoms. We must capitalize on every tool and source of information available before the eventual ‘eureka’ moment.”

By the end of the two days, the students had their eureka moment, deducing that the yellow powder they began with was the compound (1E,4E)-1,5-bis(4-methylphenyl)-1,4-pentadien-3-one, a solid at room temperature and pressure, with the chemical formula C19H18O.

Chemistry Compound

After observing the student excitement and curiosity in the lab, it’s clear to Donald that the two days of detective work was meaningful for all participants. Teachers ask to return to the workshop year after year, bringing new students each time, and Donald has received many emails from students thanking them for the opportunity to be involved.  

“We want to inspire students and teachers,” Donald says. “More than anything, we want to see these students succeed, and if they wind up coming to the University of Richmond for their education, the University will be better for it.”