By Samantha Adams
Student members of the American Chemical Society at Union received a grant this summer to theatrically teach the scientific method to elementary students and a matching grant to attend a science skit workshop Sept. 21-23 in Madison, Wis.
The Fusion Science Theater grant will pay for travel and housing for two students and a professor to attend the workshop. The $454 Community Interaction Grant from the American Chemical Society will fund the props for a new skit they will learn at the workshop.
Last year, Union’s chapter became one of the first to use Fusion’s scripts to put on three short plays in elementary schools in Jackson.
These are not typical demonstrations. They include costumes, a game-show-style applause sign that lights up, bouncy balls and chemical bond formations made up of the elementary students representing the elements.
Between skits, the society members serve liquid nitrogen ice cream to the children.
The goal is to teach elementary students to see science and chemistry outside the classroom, said Stephanie Cheadle, junior chemistry major and one of the community outreach coordinators for Union’s chapter.
The chapter has received grants from the American Chemical Society before, but the 2012-2013 Community Interaction Grant they received this summer was the first one it received for drama-based demonstrations.
Until last year, chemistry students’ demonstrations in the elementary schools often were impressive but did not engage the students, said Dr. Randy Johnston, chair of Union’s chemistry department and an adviser for the chapter.
“You can think all you want, but modeling is a very important thing in science, and I don’t think you see that in most schools — certainly not in elementary schools,” Johnston said.
Johnston learned about the Fusion Science Theater at a conference and asked if he could get the scripts for the short plays.
The approach is unique because the actors in each 30-minute play pose a question to the students, such as “Which ball will bounce higher?”, then guide the students through the scientific method until they reach a conclusion.
The children may not realize it, but they have learned about polymers, combustion and other aspects of science.
The theatrical approach does not come naturally to many of the chemistry students who participate, Cheadle said.
“For me, (acting in the skits) was something to overcome,” Cheadle said. “Before every performance, I would get really nervous and would have difficulty being loud enough.”
Cheadle said she improved with each skit she performed and now is looking forward to introducing new Union students to the program.
The skits have potential to change the college students’ professions, Johnston said. Some students involved in the chemistry society enjoyed the skits so much they have now graduated and have begun teaching, he said.
Last year, approximately 20 Union students participated as actors and stage hands, a number Cheadle would like to see grow this semester. More students could allow the organization to overcome one of its biggest challenges with the plays: finding students who have been trained as stage hands and are available on the day of the plays.
Johnston said in the future he would like to have permission to use Fusion Science Theater’s approach but write many skits for Union students to perform that would reinforce science principles the elementary students will need to know for state testing.