Bringing chemistry into K-12 classrooms

The Chemistry Demonstration Series, launched by a professor-student duo, ignites a passion for science in K-12 learners.

Bringing chemistry into K-12 classrooms

The Chemistry Demonstration Series, launched by a professor-student duo, ignites a passion for science in K-12 learners.

Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry Dr. Krisztina Voronova’s teaching motto is simple: “science is fun!” She teaches introductory chemistry lectures at the College of Science and is determined to pass on this adage to her students by demonstrating all the ways science and chemistry can be exciting, fascinating, even explosive. Delighted by her enthusiasm, instructors from the University’s NevadaTeach program, an undergraduate degree program that provides students pursuing STEM majors with the coursework and training to become science teachers at the middle and high school level, reached out to Voronova and presented an opportunity for one of their students to intern with her. The student, Kimberly Hernandez, is a rising senior set to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as well as all the required coursework to pursue her teaching license. Voronova and Hernandez’s mutual interest in science education helped spark the idea of creating a youth outreach program. They compiled a set of exciting chemistry-based experiments with a K-12 audience in mind.

In January of 2019, after months of planning, they began reaching out to K-12 teachers and their students, inviting them to the Department of Chemistry labs on campus to experience the new Discover Chemistry Demonstration Series. The response to this initial outreach was extraordinary, and Voronova and Hernandez decided to keep the momentum going by expanding the demonstrations beyond the campus walls. While continuing to perform demonstrations on campus, they also started visiting elementary, middle and high school classrooms throughout the Washoe County School District. By the summer of 2019, nearly 700 K-12 students had experienced the Discover Chemistry Demonstration Series, including students at Jessie Beck Elementary School, Depoali Middle School, Sky Ranch Middle School, and the Innovations Big Picture High SchoolOne of their larger events was organized in collaboration with the Dean's Future Scholars program, an academic outreach program with the goal of increasing the number of low-income, first-generation students graduating from high school and gaining access to higher education.

Dr. Voronova and Kimberly Hernandez are surrounded by a class of 5th graders at Jessie Beck Elementary School. Everyone in the photo is making a "goofy face."
Dr. Krisztina Voronova and Kimberly Hernandez stand surrounded by a class of 5th-grade students from Jessie Beck Elementary School posing for the photo all making "goofy faces" after enjoying the Chemistry Demonstration Series.

But what are they doing exactly that commands such attention? The duo performs science “magic tricks” while asking the young learners to observe and try to figure out what causes the different phenomena. One experiment, for example, begins by pouring a colorless liquid into a set of beakers. In each beaker, the colorless liquid changes color. When other colorless liquids are added to the beakers, the colors disappear and reappear. The student audience is given the opportunity to guess what might be causing these color changes, often prompting a myriad of responses before the science behind the trick is revealed. This is how Voronova and Hernandez introduce acids, bases, and indicators, demonstrating color change and its reversibility due to changes in pH of the solutions. 

This experiment, and most others available in the Demonstration Series, can be scaled so they are appropriate for any audience. They can be adapted to intrigue kindergarten students or expanded to be appropriate for a college-level general chemistry course. The program includes demonstrations that teach the audience about phase changes, color changes, density, acid-base chemistry, indicators, reaction rates, combustion and energy. 

“Chemistry has a stigma to it,” Hernandez said. “Everybody thinks ‘Oh it’s hard, I can’t do it.’ By bringing these demonstrations into the classroom, these younger students get to see that it can be so much more than hard. It can be colorful. It can be explosive. It can be smelly. It’s a lot more fun than ‘It’s too hard, I can’t do it.’” 

Kimberly Hernandez helps a young student dip a rose into a container of liquid nitrogen.
Kimberly Hernandez helps a young Jessie Beck Elementary Student dip a rose into a container of liquid nitrogen during one of the Chemistry Demonstration Series.
A young girl wearing safety goggles reaches out to touch the gas spilling out of a beaker.
A young girl dons safety goggles while reaching out to touch the gas spilling out of a beaker during one of Voronova and Hernandez's Chemistry Demonstration Series on campus in a chemistry lab.

The combustion chemistry demonstrations are Voronova’s favorites. The classic hydrogen balloon or the carbide cannon explosions are always a big hit. She incorporates these demonstrations in her introductory chemistry lectures in addition to the Discover Chemistry Demonstration Series. Another thrilling demonstration is fire breathing. Voronova ignites cornstarch using a propane torch. Cornstarch contains a lot of carbon atoms, so it is highly flammable when mixed with oxygen gas during the exhalation process. In the introductory chemistry class, Voronova gives the chemical formula of cornstarch and balances the combustion reaction with the help of students at the whiteboard. 

“The best part is the awe factor,” Voronova said. “I love to hear that the students are laughing, or see their jaws dropping! Many of the introductory students are in the class because it is mandatory for them to take chemistry. But these experiments inspire them to become more curious about science and the world around them in general.” 

Hernandez’s internship ended in May 2019, but she continues to organize and take part in new demonstration events. The duo are continuing to fill up their calendars with demonstrations in the 2019-2020 school year. Voronova and Hernandez are working to expand the program with a special emphasis on promoting women in STEM and reaching out to schools with a large number of low-income and minority children. Voronova has accepted a position as the chair of the newly formed Outreach Committee in the Department of Chemistry. She has also been also accepted into the 2019-2020 American Chemical Society Science Coaches program, which is an educational outreach initiative dedicated to enhancing science skills in students across the United States. Their goal with the Discover Chemistry Demonstration Series is to bring the joy of discovery to as many young learners as they can, a goal they are well on their way to achieving. 

To book Dr. Krisztina Voronova and Kimberly Hernandez for a Discover Chemistry Demonstration, contact Dr. Voronova at kvoronova@unr.edu.

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