[Currents header

November 25, 1996

Chemistry demonstrations galvanize kids at Children's Discovery Museum

Cliff Harris, Ph.D. candidate in chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC, calls himself "The Kid's Chemist." That nickname is well deserved, Harris proved recently, as he held hundreds of kids in thrall with chemistry demonstrations at the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose.

Harris conducted his innovative, funny, and visually striking educational programs for several groups of children on November 13 and November 21. The visitors, on class field trips at the museum, ranged in age from preschoolers to third graders. Harris and his assistant Jason Camara, a senior in chemistry, set out to capture the imaginations of their young audiences--and to spark some positive feelings about chemistry along the way. Judging from the rapt attention and piercing squeals of the kids, the UCSC team succeeded.

"The physical sciences are pretty much ignored in elementary school," Harris says. "I'm really concerned that we should broaden our children's views of science, especially in chemistry, which plays such an important role in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, many kids are turned off by negative news about chemistry and by teachers who don't have the backgrounds to present it in an engaging way."

Harris's experiments, conducted with high energy and slapstick humor, included the "glowing pickle" (electricity and light), "rainbow flames" (combustion of different elements), and "chemical races" (rates of chemical reactions). A highlight was the ever-popular liquid nitrogen segment, in which Harris flash-froze a balloon, racquetball, and other objects in liquid nitrogen and then shattered them into tiny bits.

This sort of outreach is not new to Harris, who has volunteered countless hours in recent years to visiting elementary school classes in the Santa Cruz area. His initial motivation for doing so was to enliven science education for his own daughter, now nine years old.

The museum programs are just one example of a burgeoning effort across many disciplines at UCSC to help improve K-12 science education in the region. Another thriving example also hails from the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department: Science Teaching Fellows. Via this program, UCSC science undergraduates work with faculty and graduate students to develop experiments to perform at elementary and middle schools in the area. Each fellow visits two or three classrooms during the quarter-long program. For more information, visit the program's World Wide Web site.

Dalia Brown of the Children's Discovery Museum arranged Harris's programs to help promote basic interest and curiosity about chemistry in young children. "Cliff's unique talent is making this material accessible to all age ranges," Brown says. "They are absolutely riveted by his demonstrations." Brown made the connection with Harris because her father-in-law was the postdoctoral supervisor of Bakthan Singaram, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC and Harris's thesis adviser.

Harris will earn his Ph.D. from UCSC in June and plans to teach chemistry at the college level. His research has focused on nontoxic and low-cost methods of producing important medicinal compounds.

--Robert Irion