Yeshiva College Chemistry Club Brings Magic of Science to Local School
Addressing an avid fifth-grade class at PS 366 Washington Heights Academy, Chanan Reitblat posed a philosophical question: “What is chemistry?”
A hand shot up in the front row. “Like when you make potions!”
“Like Harry Potter?” Reitblat laughed. “Almost!”
Reitblat is president of Yeshiva College’s Chemistry Club, a chapter of the American Chemical Society, which performed its third annual “magic show” at PS 366 during National Chemistry Week in October. Guided by event project manager Menachem Spira, club members spent weeks carefully preparing experiments and demonstrations that would visually wow the elementary school students but also serve as grounds to explore scientific theories.
“We wanted to excite the children and show them how it feels to understand how things work and how to make them work better,” said Dr. Raji Viswanathan, associate dean of academic affairs at Yeshiva College. “Yeshiva University is in this neighborhood, and the school is right here. Our students are energized and wanted to share their love of science with these kids.”
The Chemistry Club inaugurated PS 366’s brand-new laboratory with tricks ranging from “elephant toothpaste,” a volcanic experiment using hydrogen peroxide, to “fiery bubbles,” in which two presenters collected methane bubbles in their palms, ignited them with a lighter and exchanged high-fives before the brief flames flickered out.
Unlike magicians, however, members of the Chemistry Club paused after each stunt to explain the science behind it. “Let’s start a chant,” suggested Pesach Baral ’13YC, watching his elephant-toothpaste concoction fizz up. “Endothermic is?”
It was the first time the students had ever used the laboratory, since the public school doesn’t yet have a science teacher. “We wanted to give them a taste of it,” said assistant principal Mercedes Diaz. “We also wanted to show them hands-on science, how it continues to evolve and how it is performed by older students in universities and the outside world. Who knows? Maybe we have an Einstein sitting in this classroom waiting to discover science.”
The fifth-graders all had opportunities to participate in the show, whether they were shaking glow sticks made of fluorescent materials or creating their own slime from glue, borax and food coloring. Chemistry Club members quizzed them as the show went on, awarding YU footballs, Frisbees and notebooks for correct answers. The club also donated a large blanket with the periodic table printed across it to hang in the laboratory.
“It’s about inspiring the next generation of scientists,” Reitblat said. “We wanted to show them ‘Look, science is awesome and you can do it; you can pursue it.’ Chemistry is the science of everyday life—you have to bring it to the people.”
The Chemistry Cub hopes to continue its involvement with PS 366 by providing student volunteers to teach science labs until a full-time teacher is found. That program, called Project START (Students, Teachers and Researchers Teach) Science, will begin next semester. In conjunction with the YU Literacy Program, the club also offers math and science tutoring to local middle school students and is developing an initiative called FUTURE, which would grant YU students the opportunity to collaborate with high school teachers to enhance science courses in local public schools.