National Chemistry Week a beaker of hope for future scientists

Reactions generated amazement, nitrogen ice cream was devoured, fire sprang to life and poems were whipped up as chemistry buffs across the nation celebrated National Chemistry Week Oct. 16–22.

Some were even more innovative. In fact, one professor designed a step-by-step experiment for detecting cocaine on dollar bills, and others channeled Harry Potter to create “magic” from chemistry. Others yet optimized the creative energy by constructing chemistry-themed Halloween costumes (Schrödinger’s cat, Beaker, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nikola Tesla, etc.)

All were commemorating the annual week-long event founded by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1989 to call attention to the value of chemistry in our everyday lives, particularly at the local levels. Each year, during the third week in October, chemists and chemistry teachers work in conjunction with schools, colleges, businesses and museums to devise fun and compelling activities aimed at showcasing all things chemical.

This year’s theme, “Solving Mysteries Through Chemistry,” focused on fibers and forensics. In conjunction, the ACS published an activities booklet, provided educational resources, devised guidelines for a clean-up-your-community scavenger hunt, and offered a tempting range of chemistry-themed merchandise (goggle-wearing stuffed mole or “Proud to be a chemist” tattoo, anyone?)

Another highlight was the ACS’s annual nationwide illustrated poem competition for youth in grades K–12, offering cash prizes for eight winners. This year’s outcome is still being mulled, but 2015 winners included this gem from a second grader in keeping with last year’s “Radiant Colors” theme: “Pink is unique, it can go in your drink; Green is mean, it has been growing in your sink; White is bright, it is the color of light; Yellow is mellow; Hey there fellow, you are a beautiful sight.”

A sampling of the myriad events across the nation this year:

  • Twenty-five schools from northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia brought fourth-grade classes to Eastman Chemical Co. for demonstrations on creating electricity, fire, rainbow “volcanoes,” magnets from batteries, chemiluminescence and other natural wonders. Some 33,000 students have participated in the event over the past 26 years.
  • Princeton University held a hands-on activity night for youths 5 and older wherein local scientists and students showed how chemistry is used to solve crimes and other mysteries. Participants were invited to analyze powders, take fingerprints, compare fibers and talk with forensic specialists.
  • The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, branch of the ACS held its 18th annual event at the Carnegie Science Center, drawing more than 5,700 people over two days. Entitled “Chemistry Rocks,” it hosted 48 organizations that facilitated hands-on experiments and demos.
  • Brigham Young University and the Utah ACS branch sponsored chemical magic shows, kids’ workshops, a symposium and a research poster session featuring the work of faculty-mentored student groups. Liquid nitrogen ice cream was the snack of the day.
  • 3M sponsored its annual Young Scientist Challenge in which students in grades K-8 were invited to create brief videos describing a new, innovative solution that could solve an everyday problem. Ten finalists were chosen based on “their passion for science, spirit of innovation and ingenuity, and effective communication skills.” Maanasa Mendu took home the $25,000 prize for her idea for a bio-inspired energy device that converts energy from wind, rain and sun into power.
  • Several groups incorporated National Mole Day (Oct. 23) into their celebrations. While the mascot for the annual event has become a cartoon mole, in chemistry a mole is a basic measuring unit based on Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023) as part of a mathematical relationship discovered by and named after Amadeo Avogadro. A group called the National Mole Day Foundation encourages celebrating the day by establishing themes each year (this year’s was “The Periodical Table of the Ele-MOLE-ments”), bestowing awards and encouraging often-goofy projects related to both animal and chemical moles.

Many organizations also tie in their National Chemistry Week events with efforts to interest more students in STEM-related careers, especially given the lack of gender and ethnic diversity among those entering such educational programs and career fields.

About 98,400 jobsfor chemists and material scientists existed in the U.S. when last measured in 2014, with another 2,600 expected by 2024. Last year, the median wage for those jobs was $72,610.

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