“Who would have thought that shortening would become soap? It’s like magic,” says Cynthia Guevara, a junior chemistry major at Cal Poly Pomona. “It’s an easy process and it has a chemistry background.”
Guevara demonstrated the chemistry of soap-making magic to about 25 area high school students, who used flasks, pipettes and Bunsen burners to transform fats such as lard, vegetable oil and coconut oil into brightly colored soaps. The experiment is one of many science projects in a weeklong, intensive science camp designed to educate and inspire. In addition, the program trains the participants to become teaching assistants at their high schools.
Chemistry Professor Michael Page, who developed the Teacher Assistant Enrichment Program, believes peer-learning is key in high school.
“When students play a role in the classroom, the class becomes more lively and has a greater amount of student learning,” he says.
Page hopes the participants will be inspired to pursue a career in the sciences and requests that teachers nominate students who are average performers and show potential. The program is part of a larger effort at Cal Poly Pomona to encourage more students, from elementary school through college, to enter science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, as well as to improve STEM curriculum in K-12 and college levels.
Equally important is the perception that the camp provides for parents, who see their children in a university setting.
“For our first-generation college students, this program helps their parents see in that capacity – see their children mature into young adults who are able to go away to college and be away from the family home,” Page says.
Selena Lopez, who will be a junior at Alta Loma High School, says the camp has shown her new things, such as turning lard into soap and powering a toy car with hydrogen, as well as the science behind the exercises. Although she’s never taken a chemistry class, she didn’t realize it would be so much fun.
“I never thought I would be interested in chemistry – but maybe,” Lopez says. “I like it because it’s very hands-on.”
Page established the workshop model pairing students and teachers three years ago. This year’s activities are being funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. One of the workshop components, the Teacher Assistant Enrichment Program, allows the teachers to invite a student from their school to try out the lab experiments and learn to become a teaching assistant.
The program’s goal has remain constant – to help high school teachers in the region develop hands-on lab activities that teach scientific principles, are fun for students and are easily replicated in a high school lab. The program has grown from eight teachers and two Cal Poly Pomona professors to nearly 30 teachers and six professors in three years.
(Top photo: Cynthia Guevara, a Cal Poly Pomona chemistry major, center, helps Dilmini Weerasinghe and Crystal Guevara as they make soap as part of the STEM Learning Community Workshop on July 27, 2010. Bottom photo: Lynze Cheung and Julia Hedger set the soap into molds.)