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Of bouncy balls and cabbage juice

By Mara Kumagai Fink '11
May 20, 2010

Brian Wieliczka '12 (left) and James Jaffe '11 demonstrate how cabbage juice works as an acid-base indicator.

If you see dollar bills catching fire but not burning, hear balloons popping, and are watching freshly constructed bouncy balls being chased by eager grade-school students, you might be witnessing a school visit by the St. Olaf Chemistry Society.

As part of their outreach mission, earlier this spring the St. Olaf student organization attended the Cedar Park Elementary Family Night to conduct demonstrations and hands-on activities with the students. During the event the society members worked with more than 100 students, talking to them about everything from titration to heat transfer and gasses.

Chris Roberts '10, president of the group, led demonstrations for students. “It was exciting for me to watch the kids get into thinking about chemistry," he says. "They were raising their hands and shouting out answers to questions, and it was obvious that they were taking the basic principles we taught them and applying this understanding to individual reactions."

Sarah Steinmetz '11 talks to students about the science of bouncy balls.

Not only were the kids excited to learn from the experiments, but many of the parents were, too. Michelle Avila has a third grader at the school and was watching a student at the titration station. “I like events like this because every time you go to school you learn something,” she says.

The Chemistry Society had one room at the event where more complicated experiments were demonstrated by the college students, while in the other room kids got to make bouncy balls and learn about the color changes of acids and bases.

Monica Foss, the magnet school coordinator at Cedar Park, says that the presence of college students was a beneficial thing for her students. "It was very apparent that the elementary children loved what the St. Olaf students were sharing — there was never a lull in the activity in either of the rooms," she says. "It is very important for our elementary children to see older students enthused about chemistry and science. The St. Olaf students demonstrated how exciting and cool science can be."

The Chemistry Society plans to do more area school visits next year.

Photos by Ben Hovland '11.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or