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Gearing up for National Chemistry Week 2017? Learn more about a new opportunity to engage public audiences in chemistry topics

David Sittenfeld, Museum of Science

Preparing for National Chemistry Week 2017

What activities are each of you planning for National Chemistry Week (NCW) this year?  As I am sure many of you are doing at your own institutions, we have been busy at the Museum of Science in Boston the last couple of months preparing for this year’s NCW celebration, which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary. This year’s theme is “Chemistry Rocks!,” so we have been designing and testing a range of activities that will connect to geochemistry topics.  As in many previous years, the Museum of Science will have dozens of terrific guest educators from local universities, colleges, high schools, and industry members facilitating hands-on activities for our museum visitors.  Some of our activities for this year include learning about the brilliantly colored oxidation states of transition metals, painting with different kinds of soil, testing soil for nutrients, growing instant crystals with a supersaturated solution, and carbon dioxide testing using limewater.  We’ll also have special programs for hundreds of high school students, and we’re very fortunate to again have two guest presentations from world-famous demonstrator Bassam Shakhashiri, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as part of our public programming at the museum during National Chemistry Week.

Our guest educators also will be facilitating one of the prototype activities from our NSF-funded ChemAttitudes project that has a nice connection to geochemistry.  It’s called “Cleaning Oil Spills with Chemistry” and was designed by our colleagues at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

A kit in development

The ChemAttitudes project is a partnership between the NISE Network and the American Chemical Society. Teams of activity developers and researchers in Boston, MA, St. Paul, MN, and Ithaca, NY have been out on the floors of their museums over the last year, testing and tweaking hands-on activities with visitors to learn how each activity engages museum visitors differently. Through an iterative, design-based research process, developers and researchers continue to learn how modifications to the hands-on chemistry activities impact visitors’ attitudes of interest, relevance, or self-efficacy towards chemistry topics. 

For example, through testing at the Museum of Science, we’ve found that engaging visitors in crushing the carcasses of cochineal bugs (they live on cactuses and have been used to dye clothing by native peoples in Central and South America for thousands of years) and using the extract as an acid-base indicator was a great conversation-starter about what the concept of “natural” really means.  Did you know that there are some products on the market that are colored red with the dye from these insects?

Our next step for the ChemAttitudes project is to test the activities in different groupings to learn about how combining them and facilitating them in various ways impact visitors’ attitudes towards chemistry.  After group testing is completed, activities will be finalized and a chemistry kit will be produced that includes professional development and training materials that will be sent out to 250 institutions in 2018 for use during National Chemistry Week (next year’s theme is “Chemistry Is Out of This World”).  Applications for these kits will open in late spring 2018; kits will be shipped out in late summer to awarded institutions. For those who do not receive a physical chemistry kit, all of the materials in the kit will be made available for free digital download for anyone to use. 

At the NISE Net booth at the upcoming ASTC Annual Conference in San Jose, CA we’ll have one of our prototype activities called “Chemistry Makes Scents” – we hope you’ll come by and talk to us about this exciting project and how to get involved!

Another one of the prototype chemistry activities is a variation of the old favorite that engages visitors in the foundational technique of chromatography.  Visitors learn how liquid chromatography can be used to separate pigments in a mixture, and then solve a mystery before designing their own chromatography experiment.  Since it’s the start of fall, you might be interested in this fun and easy chromatography activity you can do at home to reveal and separate the hidden brilliant colors in autumn leaves.  And here’s some really cool chemistry from Professor Bassam Shakhashiri explaining more of the chemistry of autumn leaves!

Learn more about the ChemAttitudes project: