Making chemistry cool

SMSU’s Chemistry Club put on a reaction show for Holy Redeemer School students

SMSU seniors Katie Carter, left, and Megan Bruns watch the student reactions as their “elephant toothpaste” begins to erupt.


Explosions of light and sound, disappearing water and other cool chemistry reactions — despite oftentimes being awe-inspiring and mysterious — are not to be mistaken for magic, members of the Southwest Minnesota State University Chem Club said.

“People always call our shows magic shows, but we consider them more of reaction shows because we don’t want to teach magic,” SMSU chemistry major Tori Henry said. “Chemistry isn’t magic. It’s science.”

Holy Redeemer School students recently had the opportunity to learn about and experience the power of chemistry during a chemical reaction show presented by Henry, Megan Bruns, Katie Carter, Easton Popma, Austin LaFollette and Rhiannon Sears.

“We enjoy doing the reactions on our own — we would be fine because it’s fun doing it — but then watching all the kids’ reactions out of it, it’s a really fun thing for us,” LaFollette said.

LaFollette had the role of heating mixtures of chemicals inside a balloon, stretching out as far as he could with a long-handled torch.

“It’s a little exciting,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s an art and a science. The balloons are a little bit of an art. You’re never quite sure what is going to come out.”

Along with chemistry professor Noelle Beyer, the SMSU students started off the reaction show by stressing safety. Chemicals can be dangerous, so anyone working with them needs to be very knowledgeable and cautious, they said.

“Most of what we do is fairly safe,” Beyer said. “Our reactions have come a long way. In the labs at school and at shows when we’re doing experiments, we say that you need to respect the chemicals. Whatever it is, treat it with respect and then you’ll be fine.”

At certain points in the show, the presenters had everyone cup their hands over their ears. Kindergartener Aria Williamson always made sure she followed the directions. Like the other students and staff curiously observing, she knew something exciting was about to happen.

When asked which reaction was her favorite, Williamson said: “The balloon one because it was so noisy. It scared me.”

One time LaFollette sparked the balloon, a quick burst of light flared in the darkness. The next time he lit the chemicals inside a balloon, there were collective gasps as most audience members felt the incredible sonic blast.

“I liked the explosions the best,” HRS fourth-grader Wyatt Foley said.

Along with other fourth-graders under the direction of teacher Lisa Vandendriessche, Foley was required to provide some feedback about what he witnessed.

“We just had to tell three things we learned about it and what experiment you like best,” he said.

It was apparent that the show was intriguing for people of all ages.

“This was a lot of fun,” Vandendriessche said.

One of the “tricks” was called the Hustle because it involved disappearing liquid. LaFollette started off with three cups, one of which held a water-like fluid. As he switched the cups around, the students were asked to keep their eyes on the one that contained the water. Most were able to get the first round right. Some correctly guessed the second try. But none picked the right cup on the third switcheroo attempt because the liquid dissipated.

“It’s really cool to be able to see different reactions in the classroom and be able to put them into things that look really cool — things that blow people’s minds,” Henry said. “The Hustle, the first one we did with the water, is really simple, but nobody knows what happens. The water just disappears.”

Beyer said the Chem Club typically includes about 10-15 students each year. Roughly six or seven perform chemical reactions at various shows, she said.

“It varies from show to show, depending on what students have going on,” Beyer said. “I thought this show went really well. The audience was super excited, which always gets us excited. All the reactions worked — some of them take a little more time — and I thought the students who were presenting did a great job explaining and trying to keep the students involved and aware.”

Sometimes, Beyer said, the audiences aren’t as responsive to the presentations.

“This was a great audience, so that was really fun,” she said. “We really enjoyed it.”

Bruns and Carter demonstrated how to make toothpaste for an elephant.

“Those of us in the Chem Club decided we should adopt an elephant,” Bruns said. “That’s my favorite animal. So I went to Wal-Mart to get elephant supplies.”

Bruns continued, saying she bought giant blankets and wrote him a book they could read together, but there wasn’t any toothpaste for elephants.

“Katie and I both have recipes for toothpaste, but one of us has a higher concentration,” Bruns said. “See if you can tell which one of us it is.”

Eventually, the toothpaste-like suds began to erupt. One experiment reacted quicker, while the other one produced suds longer.

Bruns and Henry then used “a recipe” to make a strong rope-like floss for the elephant.

“You can see the two layers,” Henry said. “We resurrected this one. We’d done this demonstration in years prior, but we’d stopped doing them for awhile because it didn’t work. We just got it working again. It’s really cool.”

Henry said she couldn’t believe how strong “the floss” was, especially considering it started out as a liquid.

“When I was practicing it, I wound that whole thing up and it was about the size of a lollipop,” she said. “It was huge. It just kept going. And it is a really strong string.”

LaFollette used chemicals to produce a glow-in-the-dark liquid “like fireflies,” he said. “That is cool,” a student said.

LaFollette then got out another balloon. This time, the reaction caused a loud boom and had enough of a ripple effect to make the overhead stage curtains sway back and forth.

“That is so insane,” another student in the audience said.

Music teacher Anna Lenz used the reaction show as a teachable moment.

“You can smell the sulfur,” Lenz said to the kindergarteners. “That’s what you are smelling.”

Henry demonstrated how to make snow using chemicals.

“Well, it looks more like a slushy,” she said. “But I bet you’ve never lit snow on fire.”

Henry did just that, changing colors as the chemicals began reacting. She also had a little sparkler show.

After Bruns added liquid to half-full glasses and changed the clear colors to red, white and blue, Beyer took the stage.

“I’m like Megan. I’m into colors,” Beyer said. “I have some solutions here that are clear, and I’m going to add some clear-water type chemicals that will turn different colors. I’m going to turn them into a rainbow.”

Beyer effectively produced the colors of the rainbow, then turned the colors back to a clear color. “Wow,” a handful of students said.

Beyer said the Chem Club typically does a show for and makes Silly Putty with the West Side Elementary students each year. They also did a show in Lake Benton this year. Wee Care preschool is also scheduled to come to campus for some hands-on activities this year as well.

“I think it’s important to educate people, and especially to get kids excited, to let them know that it’s fun,” she said. “Science doesn’t have to be boring and uninteresting. We just love it. Science is really cool.”

Students also had the opportunity to see a number of other demonstrations, including a fire tornado and ones using large plastic water jugs. All of the experiments were met with much applause.

Since there were younger students in attendance, Beyer said they purposely left out a lot of information. No one wants inexperienced children attempting to replicate the chemistry experiments at home.

“Sometimes when we do shows for a little older kids, we explain it more,” Beyer said. “Sometimes we’ll do shows for high school kids. Then we try to explain more of the chemistry that is going on.”

The hope is that students who are interested in science possibly pursue that avenue when they are older. Henry, a junior, didn’t start out as a chemistry major, but was drawn to it.

“I started out as a food science major,” she said. “I ended up switching, and now I’ve met a lot of great friends here.”

LaFollette said he contemplated becoming a veterinarian, so he started out taking biology and chemistry classes.

“I found that I just enjoyed the chemistry classes and ended up in the Chem Club, too,” he said. “I’m going to California (this week) to the American Chemicals Society Convention. There’s going to be thousands and thousands of people there.”