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Sixth-graders from Southwest Louisiana observe and help with experiments at the Chemistry Expo at the Lake Charles Civic Center on Thursday. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Sixth-graders from Southwest Louisiana observe and help with experiments at the Chemistry Expo at the Lake Charles Civic Center on Thursday. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Area sixth-graders attend Chem Expo

Last Modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 1:14 PM

By Frank DiCesare / American Press

More than 2,700 sixth-graders packed the Lake Charles Civic Center on Thursday for the Lake Area Industry Alliance’s 14th annual Chemistry Expo, where they got a hands-on look at how chemistry affects our lives in the products we use every day.

Engineers and scientists from 20 LAIA-member companies set up more than 70 booths where children participated in experiments that taught them about the science behind polymers, rheology, surfactants, and acids and bases.

“This is the age when kids think things are cool,” said Crystal Briscoe, LAIA member company representative. “So if you can get them interested at this age, you’ll spark something in them that they will carry with them. With this expo, we’re relating children with professional adults in the sciences.”

Phoenix Sconzert-Hall, a senior chemistry and sociology major at McNeese State University, volunteered his time at a Sasol booth to show students how the surfactants in laundry detergent break down surface tension. He asked each student to lower a paperclip on a piece of paper into a small container of water. Because of the surface tension in the water, the paperclip floated on the top.

He then gave each student an eyedropper and asked them to add a drop of laundry detergent to the water. When the drops were added the paperclip sank to the bottom of the container.

Sconzert-Hall said he plans to study organic chemistry in graduate school to become a professor. He attended the expo as a sixth-grader and credited the event as a “great help” in inspiring him to study chemistry.

“This event exposed me to a greater understanding of science than I had; it really showed me what you can do with science,” he said. “Being exposed to the industry really taught me to question the world around me; it built this desire in me to understand something greater about everything I see. Chemistry does that.”

Joe Andrepont, community affairs representative at Westlake Chemical Corp., taught a group of more than 400 students about how evaporation takes place inside a cooling tower, with a scaled-down model. He also taught students that the steam emitted at the top of cooling tower is nothing more than evaporated water and not pollution.

“I see enthusiasm in these kids and an eagerness to learn,” he said. “It kind of gives me goosebumps. They’re excited. When a child is excited and they’re learning at the same time it’s a winning combination.”

Andrepont’s presentation was followed by Fred Schweighardt, an engineer at Air Liquide, who demonstrated to students the freezing effects liquid nitrogen has on a flower, a racquetball and a raw hotdog.

Schweighardt, who performed as “Dr. Freeze,” also showed students how liquid nitrogen, cooled to minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit, can draw a hard-boiled egg into a glass flask by reducing the pressure inside the flask.

“When you’re little like that, extreme is where it’s at,” he said. “They don’t want about minus-6 in my freezer. They want to hear about minus-320. That’s why we’re hear with the cool stuff and not the boring stuff.”

Students also conducted experiments making polymers with Elmer’s glue and sodium tetraborate, with Terry Rings, a chemical engineer at LyondellBasell. At the Phillips 66/Citgo booth, students learned about rheology, the science of how materials flow, with a jar of cornstarch mixed with water, another filled with ketchup, and a third that contained cornstarch.

Nancy Tower, Sasol’s North American operations training and communications manager, said the expo makes chemistry fun for students by demystifying a lot of chemical terms.

“We teach kids that it’s the surfactant that actually cleans your clothes,” she said. “But (the expo) also gives them a broader understanding of what makes up life as well. So whether they go into the sciences is their choice. But to have a basic understanding of something like chemistry is very important. We’re not just seeing the future workforce here. These are our kids.”

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