At Fort AP Hill, Virginia, thousands of Boy Scouts are choosing to earn a chemistry merit badge requiring four hours of hands-on experiments, rather than many of the easier 20-minute badges, thanks to ACS Chemistry Ambassadors. Lisa Balbes of Missouri, Barry Streusand and Matt Lasater of Texas, Rein Kirss, and his son Michael Verschoor-Kirss of Massachusetts, and Arlene Garrison of Tennessee taught more than 80 scouts an hour during the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scout Jamboree.
And why not? ACS Chemistry Ambassadors know how to make chemistry experiments fun! The scouts conduct a crime scene investigation at one station, assess food chemistry concerns at a second, hold a ‘Senate hearing’ on an oil spill that has happened at a ‘Boy Scout beach’ at a third, and learn what scientists understood about chemistry in 1910 – the year the Boys Scouts of America was established.
In fact, the chemistry badge is amazingly popular given the rigorous requirements; it is the third most popular of all the merit badges taught at the jamboree. Of the 45,000 scouts gathered this week at Fort AP Hill, in Virginia, Kirss expects at least a thousand will complete their chemistry merit badge if this year’s jamboree is anything like their experience in 2005. Then 3,000 kids did part of the badge (and many likely completed the balance back home) and 1,000 completed the requirements entirely. This year, in the first day, 480 kids visit the four chemistry stations, 20 kids completed the badge!
The American Chemical Society supports the Chemistry Ambassadors to connect chemists with their communities. ACS members regularly volunteer in schools, organize chemistry competitions, talk to community groups, and in this case teach thousands of boys the fun, challenge, and inspiring work of science. Kirss and other ACS Chemistry Ambassadors volunteer their time as part of a national effort to support increased interest in science education, which is one of President Barack Obama’s priorities.
Kirss has a longtime interest in chemistry education, co-authored the college textbook Chemistry: the Science in Context, and advocates for more science at the elementary school level.
“Watching my own kids grow up through the schools, one observation I would make is that kids are fascinated with science in the elementary years. We do a pretty good job of offering science at the middle school, but the excitement starts younger. There are a lot of materials for the younger kids, but most teachers aren’t trained to teach science. We’ve got to get them excited – you don’t need a Ph.D. to teach this stuff!”
Michael Kirss is a junior at Colby College in Maine, pursuing a double major in chemistry and biology.
One of the biggest eye-openers for the kids is how many different ways a person can work as a chemist.
“I love chemistry; it’s what I do for a living,” said Balbes. “But even in my work with professional chemists, they don’t know what all is out there for career options. We’re making these kids aware that chemistry is part of their daily lives and they can make a living doing something they like. One of them really wanted to be a chemist and said I didn’t realize there was so much out there.”
Barry Streusand is a chemist and CEO of Applied Analytical, Inc., in Round Rock, Texas, a firm that conducts analytical testing of a wide range of chemical compounds. In addition to his time and expertise with the Boy Scouts, Streusand and several others volunteering this week raised $6,000 to purchase the essential chemistry supplies, protective gear, lab books, and other essentials to make the chemistry merit badge available during the national jamboree.
“We do this because we know chemistry is fun, science is fun, and we think the kids will find it fun if we do it properly,” said Streusand. “Additionally, so much of modern life is based on science and chemistry, and it’s important to know science to make sound decisions whether than be banning fluorocarbons, recycling a can, or drilling 5,000 feet in the ocean. In a few years they’ll be making the decisions.”
Balbes agrees. “It’s heartening. There’s the kid who comes in and says, ‘well, chemistry doesn’t suck.’ But by the end of the class he says, ‘You know, I wish you would fail me so I could do this again.’ You’re working with them for only a couple of hours, but you’re changing their world.”
For more information on Chemistry Ambassadors: www.acs.org/chemistryambassadors