Local Scouts Discover Chemistry is Fun!

June 12, 2012

Jesse Miller performs a demonstration with hydrdogen peroxide and soap.
Jesse Miller performs a demonstration with hydrdogen peroxide and soap.

Although they had just recently gotten out of school, local Cub Scout Pack 402, as well as some area girl scouts, took time out in the midst of a fun-filled week at a Cub Scout Day Camp to do something just as fun—learn about chemistry.

Like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, Jesse Miller from Illinois' Department of Chemistry pulled one trick after another out of his bag of chemistry magic tricks. One of the principles he pulled from his bag was to demonstrate that, because Helium is less dense than air, the speed of the sound of one's voice is much higher in helium. Taking a swig from a helium-filled balloon, his voice took on that "Alvin-and-the-chipmunks" quality we all are familiar with, having performed that experiment at some birthday party during our childhood. The young people laughed even more when, after breathing in a heavier-than-air gas from a Sulfur-Hexafluoride-filled balloon, he bellowed out a Darth Vadar imitation.

For another trick in his magic act, Miller added soap to Hydrogen Peroxide (see photo above), producing a volcano-like eruption of bubbles. (For chemistry buffs, this was caused by the rapid decomposition of Hydrogen Peroxide into oxygen gas and steam when catalyzed by Potassium Iodide.)

At one point, he sent an electric current into an ordinary pickle; the electricity excited the electrons in the sodium atoms, causing the pickle to glow with a yellow light. He explained that fireworks work the same way, causing different metals to glow with different colors.

Miller points to glowing pickle.
Miller points to a pickle he has made to glow by sending an electric charge into it.
Cub scout holds a fragment of a rubber ball which shattered after being immersed in liquid nitrogen.
Cub scout examines a rubber ball fragment.

Miller did a lot with liquid nitrogen. At one point, he poured it into his hand, explaining to the kids that it wouldn't hurt him because as soon as the nitrogen came into contact with his skin, it boiled off and formed a thin protective layer of gas that kept the liquid off. However, he explained that holding it in his hand or submersing his hand in the nitrogen would be harmful and freeze his hand. To illustrate how cold liquid nitrogen is, after showing off his juggling skills with several rubber racket balls, he immersed them in liquid nitrogen. When he dropped the quick-frozen balls on the floor, they shattered into fragments. Once the pieces were warm enough to touch again, the kids passed them around, most likely taking them home as souvenirs.

Young cub scout enjoys his ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.
Cub scout enjoying his ice cream.

However, the pièce de résistance of the entire presentation, and what many of the youth had been looking forward to since last year's show, was the ice cream. But this wasn't ordinary ice cream. Miller, who had drafted his son Alex to do the stirring, whipped up some delicious, made-from-scratch ice cream with some wholesome ingredients like sugar, heavy cream, strawberries, and…liquid nitrogen. Explaining that it wasn't harmful (there's nitrogen in the air we breathe), like some mad scientist, the elder Miller poured in the nitrogen, which condensed into a creeping cloud of thick fog like from Twilight, while the younger Miller stirred. The kids watched in anticipation as the nitrogen slowly froze the ingredients, turning them into ice cream, which everyone (including me) sampled, and declared quite tasty. During the ice-cream-tasting portion, I asked one of the youngsters what was his favorite part of the show. His mouth full, with a big grin, he politely pointed to the ice cream in his cone. I think that says it all.

The Millers make ice-cream using liquid nitrogen.
The Millers use liquid nitrogen to make ice-cream.

During the chemistry show, Miller was clearly enjoying himself, and obviously does something of this nature often enough to have developed a well-rehearsed routine. When asked why he takes time out of his schedule to do chemistry shows, Miller replied, "I just love doing it. I started years ago with my own kids and nieces and nephews at family gatherings. It just kind of grew from there. I have a regular spot on WCIA's morning show on Wednesday mornings, too. Kids eat this stuff up. And even though they may or may not understand the concepts behind the demonstrations, they find it fun and interesting."

During the chemistry show, the kids appeared to be engaged; Miller said that's something he encourages throughout the presentation:

"I ask a lot of questions in the show to try to keep them directly engaged. It doesn't really matter if they are right. It is the process of being inquisitive, and that is what science is all about."

When asked why the chemistry department does these kinds of outreach, and whether it's a sort of long-term recruitment, Miller replied that the department considers it a part of giving back to the community:

"The department doesn't really have an outreach program, but they support those of us who do this on our own. I think the department (and school) look at it as giving back to the community. If the kids become interested in science and have good feelings for the University, perhaps they will choose to come here. But that's a pretty small if. I think the entire community benefits from having a strong science outreach which also, ultimately, benefits the University."

Whether or not the young people who sat in on Miller's chemistry show experienced career-deciding epiphanies and ultimately end up studying at Illinois to become scientists, there's one thing that they undoubtedly got out of the afternoon's event: chemistry can be fun!

Story and photos by: Betsy Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: K-6 Outreach, Chemistry, Champaign-Urbana Community, 2012

Youngsters enjoying the chemistry presentation.
Youngsters enjoying the chemistry presentation.

Nobel Project’s End-of-Year Zoom Bash Recaps Learning

February 1, 2022
The STEM Illinois Nobel Project held a special, end-of-the-year Zoom event celebrating its participating students’ achievements.
Full Story

It’s not magic, it’s physics

January 26, 2022
In Franklin STEAM Academy, Musical Magnetism program makes STEM fun, approachable.
Full Story

Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.