The Chemistry Department at CSU Bakersfield developed a series of engaging, entertaining, and educational chemistry activities, called the Chemical Circus, designed to promote interest in science amongst local youth.  Engaged Department Institute grant funds were used to incorporate Chemical Circus activities into four undergraduate chemistry courses.  Undergraduate students taking these courses traveled to local schools and afterschool programs to bring chemistry to hundreds of community children.

An outstanding fifth grade teacher taught me that learning about science can, and should, be fun.  So as a chemistry faculty member, I am passionate about discovering new ways to communicate my enthusiasm for science to my students and members of the local community through educational experiences. 

When I first heard of the Chemical Circus, I was immediately drawn to helping ignite children’s interest in science, especially those in underrepresented minorities from low-income families.  I recalled how my amazing fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Finnigan, sparked my interest and passion for science, which has developed into a lifelong pursuit.  By bringing the Chemical Circus to children in the community, I aspired to provide the spark of interest that Mrs. Finnigan provided for me.  Further, I hoped that by including Chemical Circus outreach in my course, participating students would learn real-world chemistry applications.

What I did not expect, however, was how engaged and invigorated my CSUB students became.  They put more effort into the Chemical Circus than any other laboratory project conducted that quarter.  Many dedicated additional hours outside of lab just to make sure their presentation to the kids in the local community would be perfect.  Additionally, my undergraduate students came up with amazing ideas for activities I never would have thought of and added innovative components to commonly known science activities.  

For example, one group of students came up with a way to make glow-in-the-dark Jell-O by replacing the water called for with tonic water.  Tonic water contains an organic compound that fluoresces (or glows) under black light.  Another group of students demonstrated how acetone (a common component of nail polish remover) dissolves Styrofoam.  They then had the participating children race each other to see who could dissolve their cup the fastest.  As I saw such enthusiasm for science, I could not help but again think of Mrs. Finnigan’s classroom.

This experience has given me and other faculty members in my department new tools to captivate not only young children, but undergraduate students as well.  The Chemical Circus has shown how service learning can enrich student experiences at CSUB while reaching more and more of the local community.  We learned that community engagement has the potential to be a part of every chemistry student’s education.  We hope to expand service learning to show both our undergraduates and the community that science is fun.  Before this year, the Chemical Circus was performed by motivated students, but now is performed to motivate students.  I hope Mrs. Finnigan would be proud.