The Duke undergraduates enrolled this fall in Chemistry 109, a service-learning course taught by Kenneth Lyle, spent the last class reflecting on their outreach to the Durham community and beyond. During the semester, the 16 students spent more than 300 hours at schools and festivals to lead chemistry presentations like “Elephant’s Toothpaste,” “Witch’s Cauldron,” “Propane Soap Bubbles,” and “Grape Juice to Water to Milk.”
The students’ impact was clear. At one school, said Chem 109 student Bessie Zhang, the presenters had to place a line of tape on the floor because the children were so eager to get close to the experiments.
“It was great,” Zhang said. “I think conveying that enthusiasm for science is just as, if not more, important than conveying the knowledge.”
Zhang was seconded by classmate Marcus Kaplan: “We got to show little kids how chemistry isn’t geeky. Chemistry can be cool.”
As part of the class, students completed a reflection following each presentation. Lyle said that while students typically wrote a few paragraphs at first, by the end of the semester they were submitting 3-page, single-spaced pieces that tackled subjects from their own personal growth, to the importance of parent engagement, to strategies for better reaching audiences of at-risk students.
Chem 109 is in high demand, both at Duke and in Durham. The course has a waiting list, and Lyle has community presentations booked all the way through July 2011. Lyle also depends on many Duke students who aren’t even enrolled in the class — some former Chem 109 students — who volunteer significant time and energy to make possible the dozens of presentations made every year.
The class has a growing fan base in the Durham community, among young students who begin to recognize and request certain experiments. Jade Wu, a Chem 109 student, described one little girl at the “Science Under the Stars” event who came running to the presenters with a request, shouting, “I love propane bubbles!”
“This might be personal,” Wu said, “But if I have kids, for fun, they’re just going to do this stuff.”