Professors ignite students’ love of science

Mar. 29, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Most people drink tap water without a second thought — but a group of East Lee Middle School students might start opting for filters.

“You don’t think about it — you just drink it,” Claire Gilchrist, an eighth-grader at East Lee, said Thursday, adding: “Now, I’m always going to be thinking about it.”

Gilchrist’s newfound awareness of water quality came during Jon Barnhart’s science class, thanks to presentations and experiments put on by two N.C. State University chemistry professors.

Reza Ghiladi, an assistant professor of organic chemistry, and Jeremiah Feducia, a general chemistry teaching assistant professor, made the students ooh and ah by lighting chemical solutions on fire, making mixtures change color and even creating solids by combining liquids. They also made the students cringe by discovering that, when it comes to water quality, not all is equal.

The class collected samples from sinks and water fountains in the school’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade wings, as well as from a pond on campus. The pond was virtually devoid of metals and other contaminants, and had a neutral pH, which is the measure of a substance’s acidity. The water from the seventh- and eighth-grade areas were of similar quality, but the sixth-grade area’s water came back as slightly acidic.

That finding matched results a previous class had measured — repetition is the key to validating any experiment — but Barnhart and the two professors said they weren’t suggesting any sixth-graders start drinking from the pond or stop drinking from the fountains.

“All of it was within an acceptable spectrum,” Ghiladi said. “... Not all water’s the same, and that’s the point.”

Payton Quist, one of Barnhart’s students, said that discovering how the quality of different water sources varied was her favorite part of the day — even more so than when Feducia burned heavy metals out of lab-mixed liquids, creating multi-colored flames.

Her classmate Amber Johnson had another favorite: “They take their time to come see us,” Johnson said. “That’s pretty cool.”

The organizers agreed. Sonja Calderara, the district’s Essentially Science coach, said every eighth-grade class in the county has had a visit from a group of N.C. State scientists several times this semester. Ghiladi and Feducia came to East Lee earlier this month to do a CSI-style presentation, in which the students took fingerprints and tested fake blood samples. In April, they’ll be returning to give demonstrations on biofuels and other energy-related topics. Then in May, students will take a bus to Raleigh and tour N.C. State’s chemistry department.

“It gives them the opportunity to see themselves in a college setting,” Calderara said. Both her position and the partnership with N.C. State were created by grants the university and Lee County Schools received.

Ghiladi, noting that many of the students may not have ever had a family member attend college, said that something as simple as a tour can show them that getting an advanced education is within their grasp.

“It provides the image of young people, not much older than them, studying to become scientists,” he said.

Barnhart said he appreciates the visits and the opportunity for the tour because they change up the normal classroom experience.

“These kids are still fairly far removed from the real world,” Barnhart said. “This is great because it’s hard to make a connection between sitting at a desk, looking at a book, listening to an instructor drone on, and the fact that it’s a field people actually do in the real world.”