WNCC professor shows magic of chemistry
Dr. Steve Carman combined humor with science to create a mixture of learning and fun for an eighth-grade chemistry class this week.
“If you can get them in elementary school or junior high, you have a good shot at getting them into science after high school,” he said. “They need to see that science is fun.”
Carman, a professor of physical and biological sciences at Western Nevada Community College, teamed up with Carson Middle School chemistry teacher Phyllis Lipka to perform a series of experiments in the WNCC laboratory.
Lipka and Carman met three years ago at a Christmas open house at WNCC and decided to join efforts to make science more interesting for the students.
“It was really just a coincidence,” Lipka said. “He was here, he was friendly and he invited us.”
Lipka brings at least one class a year to Carman’s laboratory to expose students to experiments that are too dangerous to be conducted in the junior high laboratory.
For example, Carman explained that students will learn about the process of sublimation (the process in which a solid is converted directly into a gas, skipping the liquid phase) but have never seen it.
“They’ve talked about it in class, but since they don’t have a safety hood, they can’t do the experiment,” he said.
The safety hood is used to protect the students from the toxins of the chemicals used. In this experiment, they used iodine.
“Iodine is very toxic,” Carman explained. “It can really mess with your thyroid.”
Carman also performed a series of flame tests, demonstrating how different chemicals affect the color of the flame.
He started with barium. He joked that the students could remember the name by thinking of a law firm called “Dewey, Cheatum and Barium.”
Lipka said although the experiments are conducted as a demonstration rather than a hands-on experience, she thinks the students learn from watching.
“Any background knowledge they can bring to the classroom makes them better learners,” she said. “They see things they’ve never seen before.”
Andrew Kapczynski, 13, said he enjoyed the experience.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said. “I was just thinking I would like to come back here again.”
He said he was also glad to get out of the classroom for a little while.
“It’s better than sitting there writing notes,” Kapczynski said.
Carman joked with the students, inviting the “vertically challenged” to stand in front and reminding them that “fire is our friend.”
He also used humor to simplify difficult concepts.
In order to explain how different chemicals changed the color of the flame, he compared it to the students.
“How did you feel when you found out you were going to go on a field trip?” he asked the students.
One student said he was excited.
Carman said that was exactly what happened to the flame.
“The electrons get excited,” he explained.
He also referred to an episode of the sitcom “McGyver” in which the main character mixed toilet bowl cleaner with ammonia to make a big cloud to screen his get-away.
“That’s just chemistry,” Carman said.
Lipka said that after the demonstration the students will talk about what they learned and what interested them.
“It initiates discussion,” she said.
Already, two of her students are interested in pursuing science as a career.
The president of the college and physicist, Carol Lucey, attended the demonstration and asked students if they knew what they wanted to do with their lives after high school.
Two of them said they want to be marine biologists.
“That’s great,” Lucey responded. “Biology and chemistry are going to be the most exciting sciences of this century. The same way physics was the science of the last century.”
As the grand finale for the demonstration, Carman showed students the components of gunpowder – then lit it.
He made sure to add that he only told them the ingredients of gunpowder but did not give them a recipe.
“Science is crazy, not stupid,” he said.