The annual Chem Demos have been delighting area middle schoolers for a quarter century.
Chemistry professor Larry Louters places a 10-gallon black trash can front and center on the stage of the Gezon Theater.
“I don’t think that will jump,” he says.
“You don’t know. You haven’t done it,” counters lab services manager Rich Huisman.
Louters moves the trash can to a spot onstage behind the long maroon-draped tables, the helium tank and the boxes of lab equipment. Then he carefully pours liquid nitrogen through a funnel into an empty two-liter Diet Coke bottle, with fumes billowing and rolling around him. He caps the bottle and places it in the bottom of the trash can, which two colleagues—chemistry professors Herb Fynewever and Chad Tatko—finish filling with foam peanuts from a giant bag. Then everyone moves to stand clear of the can.
After a few seconds, the Coke bottle explodes and peanuts fly everywhere.
“I think we can do this out front’ says Fynewever of the experiment—which will be a highlight of the 25th-annual Chem Demos, Calvin’s perennial science chemistry exhibition for Grand Rapids-area fifth- and sixth- graders. More than 3,000 students from 32 schools will see the Chem Demos in 10 sessions held in the Gezon, May 13–17.
The peanut trick is new. “Every year, we tweak something … but there’s a regular repertoire,” said Louters, the founder of the demos. He started the exhibitions in 1988, not long after the day his daughter came home from school and asked him, “What’s a molecule?” Eager to spark an interest in science education in young children, he developed a few chemistry tricks—flaming soap bubbles, chemicals changing colors, explosions—and demonstrated them at various schools. When more schools wanted to see the show, he moved it to a lecture hall in Calvin’s science department and, every May, did 14 sessions of chem demos for groups of 50 kids at a time. A few years ago, he moved into the Gezon.
“When he did it in schools he used to ask me to make solution …,” said Huisman, who has assisted Louters since the demos’ early days. “Then he moved it here. Now I set aside a week where I can’t get anything (else) done.”
Louters has only had one close call in the long history of the demos. He was swirling solid salts in a dish of methanol over a flame (which produces varying colors), and he was unaware he had spilled methanol on his arm until it was engulfed in flame. Louters calmly snuffed out the flames by folding his arm into his jacket. “All of the hair on my arms was singed except for the hair under my watch,” he laughed. The students were unaware of the mishap. “They thought it was part of the show,” Louters said, adding that, soon thereafter, he and Huisman worked out a safer way to set up the demo.
For the last couple of years, Louters has also incorporated Fynewever and chemistry professor Chad Tatko into the demos. “They watched me a couple of times, and then, little by little, they took over,” he said. The 10 shows this year will be performed by some combination of the four chemists.
“The intimidation factor was huge … I’m always nervous,” said Tatko about following Louters onstage. “It's fun, though. If it wasn't fun, I don't think any of us would do it."
He and Fynewever have enjoyed adding new bits to the demonstrations. The exploding foam peanuts are their schtick.
Typically the show evolves throughout the week, say Louters and Huisman, and the most raucous crowds come to the afternoon demos. “We like it that they get excited but also that there’s a chemical explanation for what they’re seeing,” Louters said.
The kids really do enjoy the show, said Huisman: “Larry gets these stacks of thank-you notes. They’re really fascinating. Some like the quiet moments, and some like it when things blow up.” He remembered one crop of notes: “ ‘I like the chemiluminescence’—‘chemiluminescence’ misspelled all over the place,” he said, chuckling.
“I think I made them repeat it that year,” Louters said: “Chemiluminescence.”