Terry Gullion’s son was attending Suncrest Elementary School in spring 2005. When Gullion, a professor in West Virginia University’s C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry, stepped up to lead chemistry demonstrations for his oldest son’s kindergarten class, the teacher inquired about the possibility of a field trip to the chemistry department.
Watching the children’s eyes light up as they saw the experiments take place sparked an idea for something bigger in Gullion’s mind. What started as a fun field trip for elementary students eventually led to what is today the department’s annual Children’s Chemistry Show.
“I think it is important for people to not view the University as an isolated place, but as something that has a real impact in the community,” Gullion said. “By opening up the Department to the public, people can see the type of things we do.”
The show is modeled after Michael Faraday’s Faraday Christmas Lectures. Faraday created the lectures in the 1800s because he believed in teaching science to the general public, including children, to create enthusiasm for learning how things work.
“It was his idea to inform the general public about science by presenting modern science to everyone,” Gullion said.
The first public Children’s Chemistry Show was originally scheduled for December 19, 2009. However, due to a massive snow storm and a declared state of emergency, the show was pushed back to February 6, 2010. Ironically, another blizzard hit Morgantown, and another state of emergency was declared. The show was rescheduled again for May 1, 2010, with Gullion hopeful there would not be another snowstorm on that spring day.
“That one went off without a hitch,” Gullion said.
Ever since that first year, the shows have taken place in December, and they haven’t been cancelled since.
The show takes place in 101 Clark Hall and begins with an hour of demonstrations. The experiments range from elephant toothpaste that oozes foam to a Ruben’s tube, or a metal pipe that uses flames to visualize participate by volunteering to perform an experiment in front of the audience.
While the lecture hall holds up to 280 people, attendance is typically standing room only.
“The children seem pretty excited, and I think the parents are as well,” Gullion said. “That is the really cool thing because it’s turned into a family event.”
After the show, families can participate in interactive, hands-on activities around the department. Organized by Professor Betsy Ratcliff, over 10 tables of experiments are set up science fair-style for the families to enjoy.
“The hands-on demonstrations are just a bunch of activities the kids can do to have fun and get their hands dirty,” Gullion said.
This event is not only for children. Gullion encourages individuals of all ages to attend.
“It’s not just children, but we figured that would be the primary audience, so most of these demonstrations either make a big mess or are visually stimulating,” Gullion said.
For the older children in the audience, Gullion often organizes an experiment similar to what a college freshman would conduct in an introductory lab course. He encourages them to pay attention to the reactions that take place during the more advanced experiment, which takes place in a chemistry lab.
“It gives them an opportunity to understand what goes on in the department,” Gullion said.
The Children’s Chemistry Show is not a one-man show. While Gullion created the idea, he collaborates with Kung Wang, the Eberly Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, to produce the experiments each year. After the show and during the hands-on activities, Wang organizes tours of the department’s laboratories.
“What we’re trying to show them is that this is where their tax dollars are at work,” Gullion said. “We not only teach here but we are also a research institution, so they get to see the actual equipment and facilities that we use during the tours.”
Crys Povenski, the department’s operations manager, plays a large role in the event logistics by ordering the chemicals needed for the experiments, prepping them before the show begins and performing some of the demonstrations. She thinks the event is a good way to get the younger generation interested in science, technology, engineering and math programs.
“We have aspects of both chemistry and physics in our shows, and when someone that young sees that this is fun and entertaining, wheels start turning in their mind,” Povenski said. “We literally see the light shining in their eyes as they watch and have fun, which draws them in and makes them ask questions.”
All of the experiments that require construction, hardware and other materials are created in the department’s machine shop by Allen Burns and Randall Eaglen. While they also make and repair research and teaching instrumentation for the department, they help create the demonstrations for the show and work tirelessly until the demonstrations function properly.
“Without the participation of the shop, these things, which are visually very appealing, would not be possible,” Gullion said.
Many undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Chemistry also participate with the event by helping with the experiments and greeting attendees.
“It’s a great opportunity to help the younger kids see the fun things about science and also a good way to express my interests for the sciences,” said Jacob Miller, an undergraduate chemistry student at WVU who has worked as student laboratory assistant for three years and helped with the Children’s Chemistry Show for the first time in 2017.
Because many people attend the show year after year, the team has to be creative in creating new demonstrations.
“Conceptually, the experiments are easy to plan. Making them work is the hard part,” Gullion said. “You can think of this as a department-wide activity; there are a lot of people involved in making this happen.”