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News & Stories: 2007-08

Local elementary-school kids get a close look at chemistry
May 16, 2008

It looks like a Hannah Montana concert in Calvin’s Gezon Auditorium, with fifth and sixth graders everywhere, clapping their hands and shrieking in delight.

In fact these kids aren’t taking in a teen pop concert—they’re watching as frigid liquid nitrogen contained in a chemistry beaker shrinks a large balloon to the size of a peanut.

"It’s gonna pop!” says one child struggling to stay in her seat in as she waits for what she thinks will happen. It never does. In fact, when the balloon is taken out of the beaker, it immediately begins to expand, never popping, as it returns to its original size.

 “What made the balloon shrink in the liquid nitrogen?” asks the lab-coat-clad perpetrator of the experiment. Tentative answers pop up everywhere, most having to do with air escaping from the balloon when it was in the beaker.  

The tall man in the lab coat shakes his head. A basic chemistry lesson ensues. The teacher? Larry Louters, a Calvin professor of chemistry who’s been shrinking balloons, dissolving copper pennies and lighting unburnable rags aflame in front of fifth and sixth graders for 20 years now. It turns out that the air molecules in the balloon were getting so cold that they were condensing into a liquid; molecules in liquid form take up a lot less space than when they’re in their gas form.

Chemistry professor Larry Louters shrinks a balloon in liquid nitrogen.These annual chemistry demonstrations bring hundreds of children from area elementary schools to Calvin in order to show them that chemistry is more than formulas and equations they’ll have to memorize in high school—it’s literally everywhere.

"The whole world is full of chemistry! Just think about how much chemistry is going on in your body right now,” said Louters after catalyzing an experiment involving an M&M to simulate what the body does to produce energy from food.

While Louters hopes his experiments are awe-inducing, he doesn’t want them to be seen as a magic show. Color changes and explosions aside, each experiment is designed to teach a basic principle of chemistry.

"Of course you pick the [experiments] that have dramatic starts and finishes to keep their attention, but then you teach them something they’ll hopefully remember,” said Louters. He swaps a few experiments in and out from year to year, but the principles he teaches remain the same: evaporative cooling, acid-base reactions, fluorescence, the physical properties of molecules and others.

A call for volunteers means every hand in the auditorium is in the air for the chance to stir something in a beaker or light a cotton ball on fire. One particularly interactive experiment sees Louters and his assistant, lab services manager Rich Huisman, running into the crowd of kids armed with a handful of methane bubbles in one hand and a lighter in the other. The students clamor to get close to the action—the moment when a spark from the lighter sends the methane bubbles up in flames without so much as singeing an eyebrow or burning the hand.

A girl reacts as she lights a cotton ball soaked in acetone aflame and it completely disappears."Afterwards they all want to be chemists,” said Louters. “Now that may only last til’ mid-summer, but at least the next time they’re exposed to chemistry, they’ll have a little background already.”

The students who come to Louters’ chemistry demonstrations are invited to further explore the basic principles of chemistry by attending one of Calvin’s five-day summer chemistry camps. The sessions, designed for those going into the sixth through eighth grades (with two sessions just for girls), fill up quickly in part because of the interest piqued by the demonstrations.

Louters began doing chemistry demonstrations 20 years after his then fifth-grade daughter’s class came home one day and asked, “What’s an atom?” He knew he had to do something to actually show her the answer to her question so that she wouldn’t quickly forget it. Why not bring her classmates along too?  Within a few years, demand was so high for the chemistry demonstrations that Louters was doing 12 to 14 sessions in a cramped Calvin science laboratory. The event was then moved to the Gezon to accommodate a larger crowd and six sessions were offered.

Today the chemistry demonstrations are as popular as ever, serving to expose elementary-aged kids to concepts they otherwise might not learn until high school. If the clapping and shrieking are any indication, the students don’t mind taking in new scientific concepts, at least when they’re presented this way.

As they exit the auditorium in neat lines behind their teachers and parent chaperones, the wide-eyed kids—future chemists—can be heard saying exactly what they think of exploding balloons and glowing liquids:

"That was awesome!”

~by Allison Graff, communications & marketing

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