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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Chemistry road show freshens science education for youth

Photo by Jonathan Sheen
Jim Pennington wows viewers with a Chemistry Road Show exhibition at Saturday’s Chemistry Open House. The show travels throughout Texas to inspire students to pursue a science education.  
Photo by Jonathan Sheen Jim Pennington wows viewers with a Chemistry Road Show exhibition at Saturday’s Chemistry Open House. The show travels throughout Texas to inspire students to pursue a science education.    

Chemistry is a subject that strikes fear into the hearts of many that venture into Heldenfelds Hall, but one man on campus strives to change this perception by reinforcing the excitement of chemistry in younger generations.
For the past six years, chemistry professor Jim Pennington has run the Texas A&M Chemistry Road Show — a chemistry exhibition for people of all ages. By bringing a show that is both educational and fun into the heart of a community, Pennington hopes to plant the seeds of a long-lasting passion for science.
“We try to explain things that they’re not going to see in everyday life and then try to connect them to things they do see,” Pennington said. “It makes it interesting and shows them why all the hard work is worth it.”
Pennington was not the first from the A&M chemistry department to take his efforts outside the confines of campus. The effort began more than three decades ago, almost by chance, when then-coordinator of the show John Hogg began using a van for science demonstrations at elementary schools.
What started as a small show in the Brazos Valley has grown into a statewide event the impact of which extends from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley. Pennington performs about 60-70 shows per year for 20,000-30,000 contacts.
“We go to mostly schools during the school year, but during the summer we do a lot of presentations for summer reading programs at libraries,” Pennington said.
Pennington attributes much of the struggle to inspire young students to enter scientific fields to the way their education is structured.
“One of my frustrations with science education is that, with little kids, we do so many experiments with slime and blowing stuff up,” Pennington said. “You get into junior high and high school and you’re turning this boring white solid into this other boring white solid and working out a bunch of equations, and everyone hates it. I’d love to see a little more rigor with the little kids because they’re capable of it.”
By showing students how interesting science can be and teaching about what they are seeing in the process, Pennington plants thoughts that can be harvested by educators for later use.
“We wanted to do more than just blowing stuff up, we wanted to tell people how and why it works,” Pennington said. “Just like in my class, I don’t expect the students to remember everything I said just because I said it once, but it’s back there rumbling around somewhere. My hope is that each student will remember one or two things that happened, and then you build on that later.”
One of the main reasons for the impact of the show, Pennington said, is that they provide their services for free. This allows students at lower-income schools across the state to have the same opportunities as schools with proper equipment and certification for teachers to perform the experiments.
“I’m not trying to target [lower-income schools], but since we offer our services for free, it attracts them,” Pennington said. “[Most of those schools] don’t have the space or equipment to do a lot of these things safely, or the teachers just don’t have the time.”
Pennington provides students with opportunities to volunteer and help him with his mission.
“One of the other goals for the road show, at least currently, is to give Aggies an opportunity to get out and volunteer,” Pennington said.
In the end, however, what the students and viewers take away from the experience is what matters. Pennington said if the students he presents to have a positive perception of A&M and college in general, he feels he has accomplished a goal.
“They’re little kids now, but eventually they’ll be deciding where they want to go to school, and now they’ve had a positive experience with A&M,” Pennington said. “We go to a lot of schools with high minority populations and lower income populations, so there are a lot of students that might be first-generation college students, who wouldn’t really be thinking about coming to A&M and we’re planting that seed by saying, ‘We’d love you to come.’”
The show visited Rockdale Junior High on Oct. 2, and principal April Eschberger said the school appreciated the effort put into the show and Pennington’s methods of teaching.
“The timing of the chemistry show was perfect as the sixth graders and the eighth graders have been studying chemistry, chemical and physical changes, the periodic table and the atom during the first six weeks of school,” Eschberger said.
During the summer, Pennington visits 4-6 libraries and community events per week.
“The presenters are chemists having fun, and they explain along the way what we’re seeing,” said librarian Diana Coldiron of Grapeland Public Library, which Pennington visited during the summer. “They also include a fair amount of audience participation. It’s really a great show.”

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