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Making scienceĀ magic

Chemistry camp works to attract girls to theĀ field

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  • Story and photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Nov. 9, 2007
Professor Sheryl Tucker holds

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Captions for Girl Scout story

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Professor Sheryl Tucker holds “glow-in-the-dark atomic worms” and demonstrates that some dye molecules impart not only color but also additional properties when interacting with light. In this case, the glow results from the molecules interacting with black light.

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Jena Whetstine (right), a graduate student in chemistry and volunteer at Camp Chemistry, blends in well with the colors of the periodic table she is showing to Girl Scouts.

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In preparation for the tie-dye lab, scout Wilhemina and others don protective outerwear to keep their clothes stain-free.

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Fiber-reactive dyes used in the tie-dye experiment specifically react with cotton fabric, composed of cellulose molecules. This slow chemical reaction results in a new bond being formed. This is unlike staining a shirt with Kool-Aid, during which color is physically absorbed into the fabric but can be washed out eventually.

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Scouts check fabric samples used in an experiment. Several strips start out white but then turn various colors, depending on fabric type, when boiled with a purple dye. This experiment reinforces the concept that the chemistry is specific between dye and fabric molecules; the correct combination is important.

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In an impromptu experiment of her own, scout Wilhemina (left) attempts to see how big she can expand the glove she just wore while Elizabeth waits to do the same.

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Scouts Sloane (left) and Katie (far right) listen to student volunteer Jasmin explain the M&M chromatography experiment. Students separate the food dye mixtures used to color the candy coatings. The properties of the dyes determine how fast they creep up the filter paper when immersed in salt water, resulting in separation.

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Focused and careful not to spill any solution, scout Precious carefully completes her experiment.

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Grad student Roderick Pomfrey introduces students to the red cabbage lab. After completing his doctorate, Pomfrey intends “to open a few neighborhood study shops, or some type of venue, where kids in various neighborhoods throughout America can have a safe place to go and study and actually tune in on academic ventures.”

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As grad student J.J. Sarkar explains the results of the red cabbage lab, a couple of Girl Scouts express their confusion. To maintain their interest and keep students from taking the experiment too seriously, Sarkar pins actual cabbage leaves to his lab coat.

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As part of the red cabbage lab, a student extracts color from a cabbage leaf to test pH and observe changes. Many vegetable extracts, such as those from red cabbage or grapes, contain the pigment molecule flavin, which changes color depending on pH.

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At the end of the day, Sarah and approximately 150 fellow Girl Scouts review lessons learned from the four experiments they have conducted throughout the camp.

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After completing a secret writing lab and reading her hidden clue, scout Morgan enjoys what graduate student Roderick Pomfrey calls a “chempiphany,” a special moment in chemistry when it's obvious that an internal light bulb has come on.

These Girls Scouts didn’t come to town to sell cookies. They came to learn about color at the Magic of Chemistry camp, a program that began in 1998 with 35 girls from Columbia and is designed to ignite and retain a passion for science. Approximately 150 Junior Girl Scouts, all between fourth and sixth grade, spent Saturday afternoon, Nov. 3, completing lab experiments with students from Mizzou.

Adorned in goggles, a baby-blue lab coat and latex gloves, Pilot Grove Girl Scout Rileigh Grunden sums up the camp’s appeal: “I liked it when we tie-dyed the shirts because we got to get really messy, and I like to get messy.”

An animal lover, Grunden wants to be a veterinarian. “I know science has to do with body parts, biology, chemistry and all that,” she says. “I think that’d be pretty cool to do.” Sheryl Tucker, associate professor of chemistry and associate dean in the Graduate School, agrees. That’s why she started the program.

According to Tucker, national studies for more than 30 years have shown that girls lose interest in chemistry somewhere between fourth and eighth grade. But after attending the Magic of Chemistry Camp, 80 percent of the attendees profess more interest in science, and about 40 percent come back every year.

Roderick Pomfrey, a third-year graduate student and doctoral candidate in chemistry, likes to be there for those moments when a student completes an experiment and the metaphorical light comes on. He even has a word for it: chempiphany. “It’s that special moment when you’ve been maybe toiling over some chemical enigma and all of a sudden it’s been elucidated,” he says.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013