Seniors Michelle Borsavage and Eliza Arsenault didn't mind changing their summer plans when Matthias Brewer, assistant professor of chemistry, asked them if they'd be interested in developing a multimedia program on "Green Chemistry" to present to the 500-plus daily visitors at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. The summer internship offer — part of a major National Science Foundation (NSF) grant landed by Brewer — started with a four-day training at ECHO that focused on the development of a hands-on green "chemistry encounter" to be conducted daily on the exhibit floor.
Borsavage and Arsenault also created an outreach display in the main lobby that included a DVD on the principles of green chemistry; a notebook with applicable research and articles; and a display case with tools typically found in a green chemistry laboratory.
The opportunity was tailor-made for Borsavage, an education major who loves chemistry, and Arsenault, a chemistry major who loves to teach, to hone their curriculum building and teaching presentation skills. The most applicable exercise in that regard was the development and delivery of a 30-minute green chemistry presentation that included a chemical experiment. They presented it to many of the center's 45,000 patrons over the summer, which both students say helped clarify their post-graduation plans of wanting to teach K-12 chemistry.
"I've wanted to be a teacher since second grade, and this internship only made that commitment even stronger," says Borsavage. "This was the first time I was able to talk about content knowledge and chemistry to the public, and I loved it. There's no question in my mind that I want to teach after this eye opening experience."
Professor Brewer, who works on assembling complex molecules from simple starting materials with a focus on improving the way medicines are made, won a highly competitive $500,000 NSF CAREER grant in 2008.
The NSF grant included an adult education and public outreach component that Brewer felt was important to help dispel some of the misconceptions about chemistry. "Chemists get a bad rap because most of the public only hears horror stories and not about all of the good things that chemistry has done for people," says Brewer, who approached Borsavage and Arsenault during his organic chemistry course to see if they'd be interested in delivering the adult education component through ECHO.
"Magically, the stars aligned and I was able to find two students who are ambitious and reliable, but also very interested in education," says Brewer.