Stuart Pasch ’14 stood in the front of Tishler Lecture Hall on Sunday, April 13, holding a container of bubbling, steaming, blue liquid. He is one of the leaders of the Art and Science of Chemical Demonstrations student forum, which was in dress rehearsal for its WesFest showcase, and his was the the final act to run through before the final performance takes place on Friday, April 18.
Pasch, wearing a tie-dye, lab coat, carefully grasped a Chips Ahoy cookie with a pair of prongs.
“All the oxygen is supplied as a liquid,” he said, talking to his imaginary audience of prospective students and their families. “It will burn by itself, because a fire is just oxygen with something else to burn.”
He dropped the cookie into the liquid oxygen and then took an enormous step back. It immediately exploded and began sparking like a firework, so Pasch took another step back. The present audience, a small group of chemistry majors who constitute the Art and Science of Chemical Demonstrations forum, watched in amusement. They had all seen this before.
Pasch laughed. “Definitely Chips Ahoy,” he said. “It’s a dense cookie.”
Suddenly the reaction, which had died down, burst into flames yet again, one last hoorah before quieting for good. Pasch quickly conferred with a fellow Chemical Demonstrations member, and then he reached for an Oreo cookie, planning to light it on fire with the remaining liquid oxygen.
“Are you going to compare the two cookies in the actual show?” called out Associate Professor of Chemistry David Westmoreland, the faculty sponsor of the forum, from his perch in the audience. “If so, I would get another beaker and run them both at the same time.”
Pasch nodded, making a note to bring a second beaker to the performance.
Pasch has been leading the forum along with Caitlin Bray ’15 for the entire semester in preparation for the big bang: the showcase at WesFest. Along the way, the class has learned the ins and outs of chemical demonstration.
“It’s been going really well,” Pasch said. “There’s obviously a lot of teaching and learning among us. The first half of the semester is teaching people how demo works, how you go about putting on shows for audiences.”
The second half of the class is focused on the demonstrations themselves. Pasch attests that the power of demonstration lies in the fact that it is both showing and telling, a rarity in many science classes.
“It’s not just a textbook question,” he said. “You’re showing something that’s physical and explaining it at the same time.”
WesFest might be the largest event of the semester, but it has not been the only one for which the forum has prepared.
“We’re hoping to give a presentation at MacDonough [Elementary School], in their after-school programs, in two or three weeks,” Pasch said. “We have a repertoire of demos to do now that’s fairly vast, because there are six of us looking for new demo ideas all the time.”
Bray hopes to use the showcase to connect with prospective students during WesFest.
“The show is one of the more interesting things at WesFest,” she said. “It’s an hour long, and anyone who wants to can watch. We’re going to show off the power of science, the power of being able to show someone what you’re learning and what you’re doing, and grab the attention of a lot of people.”
Pasch explained that the forum performs different types of demos for different audiences, and that these presentations have different aims: some shows are flashier, while others are strictly educational. The WesFest demonstration will be focused on showing off the University, especially its strong science programs.
“WesFest is all about promoting Wesleyan, saying, ‘Look at us, we’re so awesome,’” Pasch said.
“It’s an opportunity to talk about Wes in this environment,” she said. “As you’re sitting there, you’re hearing about chemistry here. We’re all wearing our ‘Free Radicals’ shirts. It’s really a community and a fun place to be involved in science.”
Bray explained that the University will be incorporated into nearly every demonstration, most notably through the food used: they will use candy from Weshop and apple crisp from Usdan, and after the show the audience will be served ice cream.
In terms of what the science demonstrates, Pasch hopes to challenge people’s preconceptions.
“The most fun is getting an unexpected result,” he said. “There are situations where you have heavy gases and you float boats on them. Getting unexpected results is the most interesting because it challenges people’s expectations of the world. We try to have as much hidden stuff as we can.”
At the end of the presentation, the forum will invite audience members down from their seats to join in on some of the experiments and to get a closer look at the science being exhibited. They will also have the chance to ask about science departments and programs at the University.
Pasch is confident in the universal appeal of the demonstrations.
“Whether you liked high school chemistry or not as a whole, there was always that day you did cool demos,” he said. “The goal of this is to make it an hour of cool demos. Demos on demos, very flashy and very fun.”