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Fun with Chemistry Inspires Students of All Ages

Fun with Chemistry Inspires Students of All Ages

ExploreUT
A woman in a lab coat, protective goggles, and gloves stands at the front of a packed school auditorium and yells, “Do you like science?” The room full of children screams back, “YES!” The woman dumps a vat of hot water into a bucket of liquid nitrogen; instantly, a cloud of nitrogen gas fills the front of the room as children applaud and cheer. Thus ends another demonstration of Fun with Chemistry.

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Learn more about Fun with Chemistry on their webpage or follow them on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram

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The photos below are from Fun with Chemistry's Twitter page. Click on an image to enlarge it.

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The scientist in the lab coat is Dr. Kate Biberdorf, and she runs the new science outreach program in the Department of Chemistry at The University of Texas at Austin.

The program, which began visiting schools in December of 2014, was created to get children excited about science. The demonstrations are intended to be fun and exciting while showcasing basic principles of chemistry. The repertoire includes the creation of instant snow, ice cream made using liquid nitrogen, controlled explosions using hydrogen gas and more.

“Our whole mission is to get kids excited about science and show people it’s not necessarily nerdy. It can be cool, and you can have fun with it,” said Biberdorf. “I want people to know that science is everywhere and anybody can learn it.”

Biberdorf can attest to the power of such displays, as she was once inspired by a teacher with her same enthusiasm and energy.

“I had an insane—just amazing—chemistry teacher who was excited about everything. It was just contagious, and ever since I was 15, I knew I wanted to be in chemistry and teaching.”

That enthusiasm led Biberdorf to pursue a PhD in chemistry at UT Austin. During her student years, she put in many semesters as a TA, and later an assistant instructor, in chemistry. When she graduated last spring, a teaching spot had opened up, and she joined the department as a lecturer.

While teaching her own classes, Biberdorf uses demonstrations just like the ones for Fun with Chemistry and has found them to be effective.

“You get the students’ attention. It takes maybe a minute of class time out of 50. That's nothing,” she said. “And it wakes them up. They’re excited again, and they can see the reasons why they’re in class.”

The experiments she uses are part of the Chemistry Department’s classroom demonstration program, which Biberdorf also oversees. She is aided by demonstration coordinator Eric Wigdahl, who prepares the materials for every presentation. Together they create exciting displays for all of the freshman and sophomore chemistry courses at UT and for Fun with Chemistry.

Biberdorf presents at local schools several times a week. In the short time Fun with Chemistry has been around, she has performed before almost 8,000 children in schools around Austin. Often these schools cannot afford to purchase the items needed to do their own demonstrations, so her presentations are something the children have never seen before. In addition, Fun with Chemistry participates in other outreach events, such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Explore UT.

Fun with Chemistry has also become a regular fixture of the We Are Austin segment of KEYE-TV news. After a chance meeting with KEYE’s executive producer, Biberdorf began monthly appearances in October with a demonstration about exploding pumpkins. She now performs the third Wednesday of most months on the 9 a.m. program.

The outreach program and Biberdorf herself have been well received by local schools, according to John Baxendale, Assistant Director of the Department of Chemistry. “I very often receive emails from teachers and principals after she visits their school, and they tell me how excited the kids are following her presentation,” he said. “This is how you get kids interested in science! After all, who doesn’t like explosions?”

In the future, Fun with Chemistry may spread beyond the Austin area. Biberdorf is currently working with a nonprofit organization in North Texas interested in recording and broadcasting her lectures to school districts that have no similar programs in their area. If the shows are well received the broadcasts may eventually reach schools all over Texas.

In the end, Fun with Chemistry is really a labor of love. Biberdorf finds science fascinating and wants to share that delight with the next generation and maybe even convince a child or two to pursue science.

“I love when a student gets excited about science or liquid nitrogen. It makes my heart just jump!” she said. “I know I'm not going to get a Nobel Prize, but maybe I can inspire the person who will.”

Update: Listen to Kate Biberdorf's story about what inspired her to launch Fun with Chemistry in our new College of Natural Sciences podcast, Point of Discovery.

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Comments 1

 
Guest - Rosalia Roger on Saturday, 14 March 2015 08:39

Kate is truly an inspiration. My kids love her enthusiasm and passion for teaching.They received a science kit and have been using it to make their own videos of Fun with Science which they thank Dr. Kate Biberdorf. So far this passion has made them wanting to learn more and who knows where it will take them.

Kate is truly an inspiration. My kids love her enthusiasm and passion for teaching.They received a science kit and have been using it to make their own videos of Fun with Science which they thank Dr. Kate Biberdorf. So far this passion has made them wanting to learn more and who knows where it will take them.
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