Inside Iowa State
May 16, 1997
Hitting the road for chemistryby Skip Derra
When Tom Greenbowe makes a trip to an Iowa middle school, he packs lots of chemicals, racquetballs, popsicle sticks and balloons. And wherever he makes a chemistry demonstration, his audience knows full well what happens when you mix polyvinyl alcohol with sodium borate.
Greenbowe, associate professor of chemistry and coordinator of general chemistry at Iowa State, has made some 300 trips to middle schools and high schools in his 20 years as an educator. In the seven years he has been at Iowa State, Greenbowe has focused on bringing the wonders of chemistry to sixth through ninth graders.
His demonstrations entertain and are sought after by Iowa students and teachers alike. However, they are not intended to be a mystery orchestrated by a great and powerful Oz, but geared to whetting a child's appetite for science.
"We don't want it to be magic," Greenbowe said. "We present it as an observation they can understand and make sense of on their own."
Yet to keep youngsters interested, Greenbowe admits to a little flash. Solutions change color, heat up, cool down and light up before the students' eyes. Perfectly good racquetballs, immersed in liquid nitrogen, are hurled against a wall and shatter to pieces. Compounds explode, iron is separated from Total cereal and slime is concocted (from polyvinyl alcohol and sodium borate). All this is choreographed to safely keep students' attention and drive home a point.
Greenbowe's interest in traveling science shows goes back to the early 1970s and his days at Indiana State University's physics department. His adviser, Lawrence Poorman, traveled Indiana, putting on similar shows.
"When we pulled in to the first school and the kids would see him emptying the boxes from the back of the station wagon, they all clapped and cheered," he said. "He stressed that you have to interest the children so that they would come away from it thinking they understood, or partially understood, what happened."
Greenbowe continued his travels at Purdue University, where he once made a presentation to an audience of 4,000, and Southeastern Massachusetts University, where he honed his skills before showing Iowa students better living through chemistry.
"I've always tried to show that science is fun, understandable and there are surprises in it," he said.
There's a significant time commitment for each show. A one and a half hour demonstration requires six to eight hours of preparation, one and a half hours to cleanup, and drive time. Still, Greenbowe makes at least four presentations a year.
"I do it because I like working with the students and their teachers," he said.
"The students get very excited. They ask questions and talk between demon-strations," he added.
After a racquetball demonstration, Greenbowe said, one student was particu-larly eager for a souvenir piece of the ball.
"He said, 'My brother got a piece three years ago and he wouldn't ever let me touch it. Now I have my own.'"
Greenbowe said the chemistry department plans to extend the reach of these demonstrations and raise their level of sophistication. A goal of the department's Institute for Excellence in Science Education is to fund a van that would be used to expose Iowa students to a higher level of chemistry equipment than Greenbowe can fit in the trunk of his car. Analytical instruments like a high-performance liquid chromatograph and a Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer would show students there's more to chemistry than flash and slime.
"The impression students get is that chemistry is just a lot of mixing things together when, in fact, it is a very computer-oriented discipline in which you must have the ability to analyze chemicals and what they do," Greenbowe said.
The van would allow Iowa State to rotate high-tech instruments among several schools and show students more about the chemical environment in which they live. It also would keep science teachers current with technology, allow them to share resources and ideas and foster goodwill, he said.
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