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UM-Flint’s Chemistry Club sets out to Educate the Youth and Push their own Boundaries

Photos Courtesy of UM-Flint Chemistry Club

Photos Courtesy of UM-Flint Chemistry Club

Photos Courtesy of UM-Flint Chemistry Club

UM-Flint’s Chemistry Club sets out to Educate the Youth and Push their own Boundaries

From breaking a world record to visiting a multitude of classrooms across Michigan, UM-Flint’s Chemistry Club is making chemistry fun and easy for young students. 

With 24 dedicated members, the Chemistry Club is expanding their knowledge to all ages of students in the hopes of encouraging an interest in chemistry, as well as a full understanding of its concepts. 

“We started with the intent of expanding chemical education. Our biggest goal and our main focus is chemistry in the community and bringing chemistry to people who might not have an extended exposure, especially in the school system,” said Chemistry Club President and UM-Flint Junior Lynnette Harris. 

In an effort to educate young students in a subject matter that does not always recieve expansive attention, club members first set out to find a way to help the community and local school systems.

“A few years ago we realized that a lot of schools in the area don’t have proper funding for their classrooms. So, what happens with the students is by the time they get to this collegiate level of their chemical education, they don’t even consider pursuing a STEM degree,” Harris said. 

After coming up with unique ways to create safe hands-on demonstrations for students to understand chemical topics, members packed up their supplies and sent out for schools in the area. Last year, Chemistry Club visited over 50 classrooms and 12 schools in Michigan, ranging from first grade to seniors in high school. 

“We reach out to the teachers and ask how we can help, what are you teaching your students right now, what’s something they seem not to be getting and we get together and brainstorm some different hands-on demonstrations that we can do that just finds a different way to present the material. Sort of like a fun way to drive it home,” said Harris. 

One of the experiments the club has presented, called ‘endo-exo baggie’, demonstrates endothermic and exothermic reactions.

“We take driveway salt and you pour it into a baggie and you have [the students] feel it. Then you pour water into it with baking soda and you seal it. It starts to bubble and the bag expands a little bit — it gets kind of hot,” said Harris. “It’s really hands on … it’s stuff that they can identify with too, every kid who lives in Michigan knows what driveway salt is.” 

What started as a local initiative has grown, with the club visiting schools as close as Flint and others as far as Hartland. 

Usually starting in October, the schedule for school visits starts to fill up quickly, but none are turned down. The club members find time nearly every two weeks to come up with ideas and get the materials ready. 

“We are pros at carpool, group chats and we are very strong in our communication. We work really hard on getting these demos set up in advance. We try to always have at least two weeks so that our members know which school we’re going to be at and the date and time so they can either take that day off or make sure their homework is done,” said Harris. 

Outside of their work in the school system, Chemistry Club is prioritizing cutting out time to have a more prominent campus presence. 

“One of our main goals this year is increasing our campus presence because we got so caught up in our community service work that we realized at UM-Flint some people didn’t even know there was a chemistry club,” said Harris. 

Integrating chemistry on campus in a unique way, the club hosts events like ‘Spa Day with Chemistry Club.’ At this event, students are taken into the labs and create their own bath bombs, lip balms and soap. 

“So we talk about that, what it means and the chemistry behind it, then you get to make your own soap. It’s so fun,” said Harris. 

On the lookout for opportunities to expand chemistry from the classroom to the real world, the club also focuses on how these topics can apply to possible future employment. 

“A big part of transitioning out of this college atmosphere is getting a job. So, we look for opportunities to take our students to lectures, talks and conferences to give them that comfortable exposure, you’re with a group but also bring your resume just in case,” said Harris. “Not only are the topics interesting but we have had so many students get internships and job interviews from coming to these events.” 

Partnering with Wayne State University, University of Detroit-Mercy, Lawrence Tech and a multitude of other universities, the club’s latest project was beating the world record for the largest periodic table ever assembled. This event took place during National Chemistry Week (the third week of October) and for the anniversary of the creation of the periodic table. 

The table came in at over 190,000 square feet. Members dedicated more than 15 hours to complete the work required. 

“It is the length of 3.3 football fields, which breaks the record by about two football fields,” said Harris. “We are really excited about it.” 

Besides their latest periodic table project, every spring the Chemistry Club visits the American Chemical Society conference in which Chemistry Club is a student chapter. At the event, the club presents the research they have been working on throughout the year.  

“Our abstract for this year is addressing safety in chemistry and how we integrate that into our programs, what ways work best and how we can alleviate some of the issues that happen with the rise in social media,” said Harris. “In Youtube videos people do these grand-scale, quote on quote [sic] ‘experiments’ for shock value and people try to recreate that and they get hurt.”

She continued, “When we go to classes and say ‘hi we’re the Chemistry Club, we’re here to do experiments with you guys’ the first things kids ask is, ‘is it going to blow up?’ When we say no you realize they lose interest because the way people view science they think of grand-scale, almost dangerous experiments. We want to first show how we integrate safety into our demonstrations and how we get the education into the students, but also how we can still make this an engaging opportunity and show them you can still enjoy doing science without a pool full of Coke and a gallon of mentos.” 

The club has also held the distinction of ‘Outstanding Student Chapter’ for almost a decade now. This award means the club must perform at the top three percent of the hundreds of chemistry clubs in the country, which has a strict set of guidelines including the amount of demonstrations the club is doing as well as the amount of events they put on, on and off campus. 

Right now, the club is also finding ways to integrate ideas that coincide with the new Green Chemistry degree at UM-Flint, which is the only one available in the United States. 

Green Chemistry is an area of chemical engineering that focuses on designing  products and processes that minimize or eliminate the use of hazardous substances.

“Recently, with UM-Flint’s green chemical degree, we have also adopted that new discipline so we are working on creating green-chem programs that we can do with our schools,” said Harris. 

She went on to say, “The program we’re coming up with now is entirely green chemistry. So, it’s all about teaching the kids what the process is of making something green. It’s not just paper straws. We’re hoping to get a project together with them where they can make their own biodegradable pots for plants.” 

For those looking to be a part of this award-winning club, joining is easy. Whether you are a chemistry major or not, to be considered an active member students only have to attend a minimum of three meetings or events a semester. 

“If you want to join or think you want to join we just invite you to come out. Come to a meeting, come to an event, something you see … Even if you can’t come to a meeting, sign up for the email list. If you see something you think is interesting we always have the person who is in charge of that event, we have their email so you can shoot them an email and say ‘hey I’m so and so, I’m interested in this can I learn more about it?’” said Harris. 

Chemistry Club meets every other Thursday to discuss events coming up and to review past events to see where things went well and how they could have been done better. To learn more, contact Lynnette Harris.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 print issue of The Michigan Times and has since been edited for clarity.

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