By Anna Allen, '16

They say good magicians never reveal their secrets. A look behind the curtain, however, is exactly what American Chemical Society (ACS) Students Associates do to help educate elementary and middle school children about the magic of chemistry. Working with Bonner Center for Civic Engagement community partner Youth Life Foundation, David Stevens, '15, Boyi Zhang, '16, Shannon Houck, '16, and Kevan Josloff, '17, presented their magic show to at-risk kids as a part of an after-school learning program.

Stevens initiated the program after attending several chemistry national chemistry conferences throughout the past two years. He was inspired to try a new approach to getting people interested in chemistry. “I realized we needed to start educating the people about chemistry, and give back to the community. So I decided that ACS needed to do more, and that’s when we came up with the idea for the magic show,” says Stevens.

Houck wrote the script, creating a humorous story about scientists working in lab, studying the powers of super heroes. With the help of lab tour guides Stevens and Zhang, the kids are led through the science behind different super powers, while Houck and Josloff conduct experiments on different super powers, such as jumping. “We will make a bouncy ball, and then talk about elasticity and how that helps a super hero’s jumping ability,” says Stevens.

Another crowd favorite is a luminol experiment where the tour guides explain how some super heroes have the power to glow in the dark. “They go nuts for it,” says Josloff. “We also do changing colors, or a smokescreen, and dry ice.”

Safety glasses on and ready to go, the lab team also explains polymer chemistry. “We make fake snow, which the kids love, because who doesn’t love Elsa?” says Stevens. The team recently decided to conduct an experiment that discussed the periodic table, going from lithium down to potassium, watching controlled sparks get larger for the more powerful elements found toward the bottom of the table.

“What we are trying to do is get the word out about chemistry and how exciting it can be. It’s a fun thing to do for anyone interested in chemistry,” says Stevens.

It’s not just the kids who are excited about learning — it’s their parents, too. For Josloff, that’s what it’s all about. “When you see the parents smiling, you can see that they’re interested and they’re happy that their kids are getting exposed to science and we’re making it fun,” says Josloff. “We know we’re doing well when adults also appreciate what’s going on. The kids love it, but they don’t know too much of the chemistry behind it.”

For Stevens, however, the best part is interacting with the kids. “Just their energy — it’s awesome,” says Stevens. “We have two tour guides in our show, and I am the one who is all over the place, always asking the kids, ‘what do you think about this?’ It’s just a really great time for both the kids and us.”  

The show was such a hit with the kids that the team was asked to perform their show for a class of 5th graders this April. “It’s a totally different experience to use science to educate, as opposed to research,” says Stevens. “It’s a fun side of science that can remind us why we love it.” The group is happy to continue bringing their show on the road, not just for the chance to see young students get excited about science—but for the enthusiasm it builds among Richmond students as well.  

Photos by Brittany Clemens, '15