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© American Chemical Society

What is a ChemClub? According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), “The ACS ChemClub is a high school chemistry club that provides students with a unique opportunity to experience chemistry beyond the classroom.”1

I would add that a ChemClub can be focused toward your students’ specific interests and goals. Our university/high school collaboration, which started as a high school student-driven outreach program, has developed into a synergistic collaboration that is unprecedented in my 20 plus years of teaching. Teachers, students, professors, and members of the community benefited from this collaboration.

The early years

Before ACS sponsored ChemClubs, our club began informally, with just a couple of students. Once ACS sponsored our ChemClub, over 10 years ago, I felt that we were official. Until the past couple of years, the club usually involved 10-15 students, but recently that number has climbed to 20-30 students. A group of our members wanted to get involved in scientific research, so we collaborated through the ACS Science Coaches program, and found our mentor, Dr. Mark Benvenuto. Though the Science Coaches program is different than a ChemClub, we have found that both programs provide unique and challenging STEM opportunities, and also complement each other. By using these programs together, my ChemClub students have had the opportunity to work with a professor and complete research at a university.

In the past 10 years, the Grosse Pointe North (GPN) High School ChemClub has presented multiple times in collaboration with the University of Detroit-Mercy (UDM) ChemClub during an annual National Chemistry Week (NCW) event held at the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS). Our goal was to present demonstrations and have students do mini-experiments. While NCW is open to the public, our audience is usually comprised of pre-K-8 students.

UDM’s Professor of Organic Chemistry Dr. Matt Mio (who is also the university’s ChemClub Advisor and my former Science Coach) was very welcoming to this partnership, and his college students mentored our students. This has allowed our club to visit the university and mix with college students who are pursuing STEM degrees. “In addition to bringing the high school students to UDM to observe lecture/theory courses and chemical demonstration training,” Matt observes, “we worked together with the Detroit local section on National Chemistry Week (NCW) demonstration shows at CIS. Most of all, it was very rewarding to visit GPNHS to converse with students preparing for their AP Chemistry Exam.”

I always knew this collaboration was special … and then it got even better. We were visiting UDM and one of my students mentioned that Faith Volpe (a former high school member) is currently attending UDM. I pointed out that she is in her third year of college and studying to be a dentist, and is also a member and secretary of the UDM ChemClub. “I’m thankful that GPN is so involved with UDM,” Faith later shared with me, “as it gave me my first exposure to college chemistry as a high school senior. Since becoming a member, I have been able to perform in these demo shows myself and inspire students to pursue science and recognize the excitement it holds.”

Student-driven inquiry

I think the most important aspect of ChemClub is allowing the club to be student-driven. Our club has different groups. Some students are interested in participating on the research team, and have been working on research related to water quality. Another group is totally into doing chemistry outreach, and run a science table during 8th grade registration. As a result, many students want to join our ChemClub before they have even attended high school. I also have two rocketry teams that gained momentum initially due to the ChemClub.

After running the ChemClub for 12-14 years, I felt that we had accomplished many of our outreach goals (e.g. presented at elementary schools, hosted middle school students visiting our high school, and presented at district-wide open houses and the local library).

However, with many of our members eagerly hoping to complete research, I decided to reach out to Mark Benvenuto, UDM Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry. In the last two years, our collaboration has helped focus the research-minded students, and led to the following accomplishments:

  • ChemClub members worked on research with the potential of pulling harmful substances out of water;
  • our collaborative team presented at a regional ACS meeting in Dearborn (2017);
  • with the mentoring of my Science Coach, I wrote a book chapter on the Green Chemistry Growth Mindset;
  • our club president, Michal Ruprecht, applied for and was awarded a CIBA Green Chemistry Travel Grant (the first high school student in the country to earn this award); and
  • our collaborative team’s research was presented at the ACS national meeting in Boston (2018).

As our club’s research group found success, so did our rocketry teams. One team, which was all-female, made it to the 2018 national Team America Rocketry Challenge for the final fly-off in Virginia. The team also attended a rocketry presentation held at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.


Effective Collaboration: Something for Everyone

“For research collaborations to succeed, the parties involved must have some common interests that they feel will produce greater results when the parties come together. In the case of the GPN-UDM collaboration, everyone involved brought something important to the table, and also had something to gain.

For the high school students, it afforded a chance at real research. For the undergraduate researchers of the UDM crew, it provided a group of younger students whom they could mentor. For both Steve Kosmas and myself, it provided new opportunities to present to our students.

One of the real plusses of any research project is getting to results that are novel enough that they can be published. Our project has gotten us to this point – the production of a series of long-chain molecules that can act as ligands towards metal ions, and possibly serve to remediate polluted water. We’ll be continuing this collaboration into the future, and may branch out into other research thrusts.”

—Dr. Mark Benvenuto, UDM Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry and ACS Fellow, 2015

Students know it’s special

I realized about seven years ago how important the ChemClub is to my students. The homecoming dance was the night before our presentation during NCW. I suggested that we cancel the demonstration series of mini-experiments, but everyone in the club disagreed. Several of the students showed up on only three hours of sleep, and one student showed up for NCW at the Cranbrook Institute of Science without having slept at all. This experience was very personal, since my students were presenting in the same environment as scientists from industry and academia. This was very impactful to me as an educator, since I realized how invested in the ChemClub my students were.

Liz Michaels, science department chair at GPNHS, echoes this sentiment. “The ChemClub has had a positive impact on many young minds by connecting them with mentors and research opportunities,” she says, “and also by showing them how chemistry can be used to solve problems in the ‘real world.’ I’m confident that these experiences will stay with them, and that the students will go on to solve problems as the next generation of scientists.”

During the past school year, Jordan Craighead, current co-president of the ChemClub, wrote an essay on the chemistry of food. I had mentioned that the opportunity was available, but did not expect anyone to take the initiative to write the essay. Jordan’s essay was then submitted to The Chemical History of Food Essay Contest, for which she earned a 3rd place and GPN was awarded $100 to enhance the classroom learning environment. Jordan was also recognized at the High School day at the New Orleans ACS national meeting in March 2018, where her essay and others were featured in the symposium “Food at the Crossroads.” I was really impacted by Jordan’s drive to research the topic and to challenge herself with a cross-disciplinary effort involving writing and science.

Currently a junior at GPN, Jordan has found a great deal of educational value in our ChemClub’s chemistry outreach program. “We get the chance to inspire others, who are usually younger kids, which is amazing,” she notes, “because we are attempting to reach the future scientists who might one day be at the forefront of their own groundbreaking research.”

Figure 1. Demonstrating the density difference between propane gas and oxygen gas in the related classroom resource.

Stressing safety

One of our ChemClub goals is to promote safety, and I often do demonstrations that make lab safety more visual for students — such as showing that carbon dioxide gas will put out a match, and 100% oxygen will ignite a glowing splint. The two beakers both look empty, since both of the gases are not visible — so why does the match go out in one beaker and the glowing splint ignites in the other?

Many students at the high school level are at the Formal Operational Stage (in Piagetian terms), which means they can understand abstract concepts. Showing students different concepts from a lab safety angle can increase student interest, and as a result, many of them want to work toward a deeper understanding of safety while learning chemistry concepts in the process. With this in mind I produced a related classroom resource during my participation in the Dow & AACT Teacher Summit.

Seeing the big picture

The combined experiences of ChemClub and mentoring interactions with university students and faculty can have profound effects on the younger students. Former ChemClub President Michal Ruprecht sums it up this way: “I was never prepared for high school, especially college, before I joined the chemistry club at GPN. In addition to once-in-a-lifetime experiences in chemistry, what impacted me the most were the program’s authenticity, mentorship, and team-building aspects.”

It is time to develop a mindset that includes overcoming obstacles toward STEM outreach. Two of the most common obstacles are our own attitudes, and thinking we need to wait until we are ready. My suggestion is if you are not ready, then collaborate with someone who has more expertise in that area. A ChemClub or a Science Coach will help you move in new directions. I would suggest doing both — but if you are not ready to do so, then pick one and get started. Listen to your students, and you will hear new ideas. You may just inspire a few students … and your students may inspire you as well!


References

  1. American Chemical Society, “ACS ChemClub,” available online at https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/students/highschool/chemistryclubs.html.


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