Sparking interest in science

N.C. State professors harness energy during visit with West Lee students
Feb. 26, 2014 @ 06:17 PM

Two men came to West Lee Middle School on Wednesday and proceeded to light chemicals on fire, cause miniature explosions and even expose various foods to combustion and electrocution.

But they weren't vandals. It was all in the name of science.

Reza Ghiladi and Jeremiah Feducia, two N.C. State University chemistry professors, came for their first of several monthly visits paid for by a science grant that Lee County Schools received. They visited East Lee eighth-graders on similar trips last year, but this year, they're focusing on a different school and younger students, specifically Amy Braren's sixth-grade science class.

Braren recently taught her class about energy, and so the professors also focused on energy. The students listed off types of energy like thermal, electromagnetic, sound, chemical and nuclear energy, and the professors then got to work showing them how those different types of energy look in practice.

Except nuclear energy, of course. Their equipment wasn't that advanced.

But whether they were hooking up titration equipment to break down water into its individual ingredients of hydrogen and water, blowing up a hydrogen-filled balloon or showing the students how to make a battery out of a potato and some copper, Braren said it was all great.

The reason, she said, was the equipment and supplies — the machines as well as the various sodium- and potassium-based compounds they used.

Braren said she loved that the students were getting hands-on experiences "because a lot of the time, I can't provide this kind of equipment. It's nice for them to be able to see it in person instead of just reading a text book."

Later, she added: "And it's just a good way from them to get interested in science because they actually get to see it happening. It ignites their interest."

Interests weren't the only things being ignited Wednesday.

Ghiladi and Feducia blew up a balloon to show how the mass of the gas and balloon was turned into sound, light and thermal energy. They threw gummy bears into a molten chemical solution, which resulted in large amounts of smoke, and which they said was really just a sped-up version of how we digest and create chemical energy. They also lit various salt compounds on fire to show how depending on what chemical was burned, a different color was emitted.

That explains, they said, how fireworks can be red or green, and how street lights are often orange — it's all rooted in chemistry.

Asking if the students believed him about street lights and receiving a resounding "Yes," Ghiladi chastised one class. Science, he said, isn't about belief and assumptions. It's about proof. So he electrocuted a pickle.

The pickle crackled and turned orange. The same sodium that produced an orange color when burned was in the salt in that pickle, turning orange when exposed to an electrical current.

Feducia also asked them about greenhouse gases. About half the class raised their hands to say they had heard of the term, which originated because gases trapped in the atmosphere are heating the earth similar to how a greenhouse warms up.

"That can be good," Feducia said of a warm atmosphere. "But that can be bad, too, because we don't want it to get too warm. So scientists are always trying to find ways to make fuel that burns less greenhouse gas."

After the demonstrations, the students got to work on turning potatoes into batteries.

After the next several visits by the two professors, Braren's classes will hopefully end the year with a field trip to N.C. State, said Sonja Calderara — who helped get the grant which made it all possible.

Calderara, the Lee County Schools science instruction coach, said last year's group from East Lee had an excellent time on their field trip and even got to participate in a real lab under the direction of graduate students.