Educating with everyday objects

Dr. Dean Campbell, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, uses everyday objects such as LEGO bricks to make complex science more comprehensible for students.

The word “chemistry” may conjure up images of the periodic table, glass beakers, and science labs full of students wearing white coats and goggles.

But for Dr. Dean Campbell, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, everyday objects like water bottles, hair ribbons, CDs, glue, candles, and bouncy balls can make chemistry come alive for students.

While conducting his postdoctoral research on chemical education in the late ’90s at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Campbell developed demonstrations using materials he found not in a science lab, but rather in a toy store: LEGO bricks.

“The purpose of this project was to show how LEGO bricks, which are fairly easy to acquire, can be used to build models of cutting-edge chemical structures and also models of the instrumentation used to probe these structures,” he says.

Fast forward to 2011, and Dr. Campbell’s work with LEGO bricks over the past dozen years has snowballed into a pattern of using common objects to demonstrate science.

Three articles authored by Dr. Campbell or co-authored with students appeared in the Journal of Chemical Education last year and highlighted his use of LEGO bricks to illustrate chemical structure; water bottles to demonstrate gas properties; and nylon stockings to show how acidic sulfur-containing compounds, such as those produced during coal combustion, attack nylon fibers. In laymen’s terms, he explored why coal ash produced at a downtown Peoria power plant in 1970 caused runs in women’s pantyhose.

Using anecdotes and common objects, Dr. Campbell makes chemistry more understandable and approachable. While his demonstrations frequently are entertaining, they are based on a firm educational foundation.

“There are those who correctly point out that during a demo, many students put down their pencils. However, I submit that it is not necessary to use a pencil to learn. Perhaps even just breaking the routine of lecture helps,” he says. “I want to load each demo with as much good information as possible in the hopes that at least some of it will get conveyed to the students.”

While Bradley chemistry majors make up much of Dr. Campbell’s audiences, many of his students have also participated in the demonstrations. In fall 2007, Bradley students created the Chemistry Club Demo Crew. Four years later, more than 60 students have performed demonstrations for audiences ages “pre-K to gray.”

“By performing in these events, students gain a deeper understanding of the science behind the demonstrations, especially if they explain the demonstration to the audience and are taught not to present science as magic tricks,” Dr. Campbell says. “They also gain valuable experience in public speaking.”

Students can earn an hour of research credit if they participate in at least six demonstrations and provide instructions for three. Others take part as volunteers.

The Demo Crew’s events range from hands-on activities that the audience members can touch, to hands-off exhibits that involve more spectacular sights. What almost all of them have in common are inexpensive, everyday objects. Some popular demonstrations are the “Electric Pickle,” to demonstrate light emission; the “Milk Jug Rocket Car,” to illustrate gas laws and thermochemistry; and the “Floating Bowling Ball,” to show the rules of density.

“One challenge that arises from keeping things simple and cost-effective is that some people have a hard time taking these efforts seriously,” Dr. Campbell says. “However, if I can convey good science content using low-cost, easily accessible materials, then I feel like I have won.”