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The captivating power of elephant toothpaste

In a visit to Broughal Middle School recently, Mathew Boyer ’14 (left at rear) and Miguel Roman ’14 had little difficulty getting eighth-graders excited about chemical engineering. (Photos by Mark A. Snyder)

Do you know what elephant toothpaste is? Could you build your own lava lamp? Would you be able to mix up a batch of Silly Putty?

A group of 120 eighth-graders can now answer “yes” to all three questions, thanks to an outreach program that Lehigh chemical engineering students recently conducted at Broughal Middle School.

The daylong program was organized by Lehigh’s student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

It was designed to expose the teenagers to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—fields.

The goal of the two-year-old outreach program, said AIChE faculty adviser Mark Snyder, is to demonstrate chemical engineering principles to middle schoolers and tell them about STEM-based careers they might not know of.

Thus, the Lehigh students showed the Broughal students how to make elephant toothpaste, build a lava lamp, make Silly Putty and crush an empty soda can with heat.

Elephant toothpaste can be made at home by mixing hydrogen peroxide, yeast, warm water, dishwashing liquid, and, for effect, food coloring. The combination triggers a chemical reaction that results in an erupting pillar of foam.

The lava lamp recipe requires vegetable oil, water, an Alka Seltzer tablet and food coloring. A substance resembling the patented Silly Putty product can be derived from the right combination of Elmer’s Glue, water and Borax. Food coloring is optional.

After these activities, said Snyder, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, “the students were shown a real-world safety application for the demonstration, like watching a video of an improperly ventilated tanker being crushed.” The ideas for the program, and the labor involved in pulling it together, were provided by the AIChE members, he added.

Mathew Boyer ’14, the 2013-14 vice president of the Lehigh AIChE chapter, and Miguel Roman ’14, the 2013-14 chapter president, played lead roles in this year’s program.

Boyer, a chemical engineering major, describes himself as an “organizer, coordinator and leader. I planned what experiments to show the kids and what concepts to teach them,” he said. “I then led the demonstration with Miguel, who discussed STEM fields in general while I taught them more chemical engineering-related things through our demonstrations.”

“The students were captivated and interested in the program,” said Roman. “They actively participated and asked questions. We were shocked by the large handful of students that provided us with very thorough answers to our scientific questions.”

One of the Broughal students, Boyer said, gave a better definition of chemistry than he himself probably could have done.

Roman, who participated in the AIChE outreach program at Broughal during his junior and senior years, said he hopes the initiative will become a chapter tradition.

“I was interested in science as a child and was fortunate enough to have exciting courses available to me throughout my schooling,” said Roman, a double major in chemical engineering and product design. “The outreach event was a way to share my passion with younger minds to hopefully spark an interest in the STEM fields.”

Rachel Cressman ‘15, president-elect of Lehigh’s AIChE chapter, said she plans to run the event again.

“Working with the school has been a very rewarding experience on both ends,” she said, “and it is something we look forward to doing every year.”

Cressman, who helped brainstorm ideas and prepare experiments for this year’s program, said the outreach is the perfect opportunity for AIChE to give back to the community.

“It is a great experience to be able to show eighth-graders, who are on the verge of planning their future, what they could become and accomplish,” she said.

“The students really seemed to enjoy the event. I don’t think there was a single student in the room who wasn’t smiling. I think the students were impressed with the fact that it was possible to make their own Silly Putty.”

Kaitlin Keller ’14, who also helped out this year, is another big fan of the outreach program.

“We should most definitely continue doing the outreach event,” said Keller, a chemical engineering major with a Spanish minor. “Even if we get through to just one student the whole day, that would be worth it to me. I really love being able to have an impact on students any way possible.

“I enjoy trying to give young students a little exposure that could influence their decisions towards engineering in the long run.”

The outreach program is funded by ExxonMobil, said Snyder.

Story by Jennifer Marangos

Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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