I was quite excited to learn about the “So You Think You Can Demo” competition at the upcoming ChemEd 2015 conference. I enjoy learning about new chemistry demonstrations that I can perform for my classes, and this competition provides a venue for chemical educators to share their demonstrations with each other. My General Chemistry class starts at 7:45 a.m. MWF, so I can always use a new demonstration to wake up my students!
I think demonstrations are to chemistry what music is to poetry. Reading the words to a song just isn’t the same as listening to your favorite singer belt out those same lyrics while backed up by a driving bass, powerful drums and reverberating lead guitar. Likewise, reading about pKa’s and acid-base indicators doesn’t stir the imagination like seeing the disappearing rainbow demonstration. Furthermore, isn’t it a much richer experience to see your favorite band play a live concert than listening to their songs on the radio? In a similar way, seeing a chemistry experiment performed right before your eyes is much more captivating than watching a YouTube video of the same experiment. Like music, chemistry demonstrations inspire and motivate, speaking to the heart and soul as much as to the mind.
Richard Ramette describes his observation of a classroom chemistry experiment as “a turning point in my life”1. He watched his high school biology teacher add glucose to a blue solution. Upon heating the mixture, a red solid formed. Ramette reports that watching this experiment “immediately and permanently converted me from an unmotivated state to the exciting and dangerous life of a boy chemist”. I had a very similar experience. After watching my first chemistry demonstration (as a sophomore in college) I knew that I wanted to teach chemistry for the rest of my life. Soon thereafter, I switched my major from biology to chemistry education.
Consistent with my experience, about a third of my college students report not ever seeing a chemistry demonstration until after high school. I happen to think this is a shame. Richard Ramette goes so far as to say that “the teacher who does not take advantage of demonstrations is doing students a disservice”1. Don’t get me wrong: I know there are many exceptional chemistry teachers that never conduct chemistry demonstrations in class, opting instead to allow students to discover chemistry through laboratory experiences. However, demonstrations allow experienced teachers to set up experiments (which students cannot conduct for various reasons) that showcase the dramatic, enchanting and fascinating nature of chemistry. There is a flair in a well presented chemistry demonstration that cannot be duplicated in either a laboratory experiment or simple lecture. I’ve never observed my students to clap their hands in amazement after watching a good lecture or a neat laboratory experiment. However, on several occasions my students have applauded after a particularly stunning chemistry demonstration.
So give it a shot! Enter the “So You Think You Can Demo?” competition. Share your chemistry demonstrations with other chemical educators! By doing so, you will provide chemistry teachers new resources to help keep their classroom presentations fresh and lively. And you just might inspire someone along the way.
1. Richard Ramette in Bassam Z. Shakhashiri’s Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry, volume 1, pp. xiv - xvi.