An eerie fog formed around the liquid nitrogen that was carefully being poured into a soda bottle by Southeastern Louisiana University chemistry student Grant Meadows, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation for onlookers.
The middle grade students gathered gasped as the soda bottle was sent soaring, leaving them in awe and wonderment.
“I thought (the nitrogen) was interesting,” said Alysse Lane, a fifth grade student at Natalbany Middle School. “It made the bottle go up. It was fun.”
More than 300 middle schoolers from 20 Tangipahoa Parish schools gathered Friday at SLU for the annual You Be the Chemist Challenge.
Along with the liquid nitrogen, which was certainly the most dramatic and perhaps most popular demonstration, other activities included computer coding, the testing of pH levels in liquid, bracelet-making using solar beads which change color in the sunlight and Jenga, a game of stacking blocks into a solid rectangular tower of 18 layers, which required students to use their critical thinking skills to strategically place blocks so as not to cause the structure to collapse.
Each school sent a four-person team which also participated in a quiz bowl.
“Chemistry is not an idea; it is an art form,” said fifth grader Sarah Johnson, who is hoping one day to pursue a career in forensics and DNA research, about the science fair.
“I’m having a lot of run and learning a lot,” added Lane.
Exposing middle school students to STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is the goal of the annual event, according to SLU chemistry professor Gina Little.
Little, her fellow professors and her undergrad students plan the activities, serve as judges, and manage the event, which celebrated its 13th year.
“We are trying to get the students to study material a little bit beyond their norm, to start studying outside their grade level,” Little said.
One of the goals, she said, was to expose students to a potential career in chemistry, hoping they can envision a career in that or another STEM discipline.
“We want them thinking about all of the opportunities and that they can be a member of (the STEM community); it is not an exclusive club,” Little said.
Another important goal was having students visit a college campus, many of them never having set foot on a campus, and encouraging them to consider pursing higher education.
“These are academically gifted students (who participated) but may not know about scholarships, TOPS, programs that would help them be successful here,” Little said.
During lunch, when the majority of the students ate in the SLU student union, a college admission counselor was present to discuss those opportunities.
“It is a big draw for someone who has never seen a college campus to say, ‘Hey, I think I want to do this,’” Little said.
She noted how many students are not exposed to STEM classes until high school, adding that exposing middle school students provides them an advantage during high school and beyond.
As she watched the students have fun with the activities, whether it was watching the launching of a soda bottle, a bracelet changing colors, or a mini-structure of blocks topple, Little delighted in the moment which she and the staff eagerly anticipate every year.
“It is incredibly rewarding for us as faculty and for us to see our (undergrad) students perform and run the activities,” she said. “It’s also a fantastic opportunity for our chemistry majors to be out there in the community and practice. They need to be able to communicate with the kids and explain what this stuff is.”
Also gratifying is seeing students who once participated in the day show up in one of her chemistry classes years later. Little said she has had at least three students enroll in her classes.
“That is the end goal, to see more people going into STEM fields,” she said. “It’s a very long game, but when we see it happening it’s rewarding.”
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