Bio-defense lab workers, children do science


Hannah Schoppert's face revealed the immediacy of the attraction: The red-haired 11-year-old beamed and laughed as she peered at a magnet with a slide-like viewer and saw that she had changed its polarity by rubbing it with another magnet.

She was one of dozens of children working one evening last week with scientists from Aberdeen Proving Ground's leading chemical and biological defense laboratory at a St. Margaret Middle School science fair in Churchville.

The scientists say Hannah's reaction is the very thing that attracts them to Kids & Chemistry, a program that puts professionals in classrooms and science fairs to teach kids how to make a little magic with their science lessons.

These scientists, who may be chemists, biologists, toxicologists or a host of other professions, work at the Edgewood Biological Chemical Center, which is charged with protecting the military and civilians from chemical and biological warfare and terrorism.

These days, the work atmosphere tends to be a little crazy, some scientists said, so the break was welcome - and fun.

Suzanne Procell, who founded the program in 2000 and coordinates it, said the all-volunteer group of nearly two dozen is generally working on personal time with schoolchildren, primarily fifth-graders.

"We're a huge organization," she said of the center. "What's brought us together is going out to the schools."

The group has lab time scheduled at several Harford public schools, including North Harford (where they also visited Friday) and Homestead-Wakefield elementary schools.

Mainly they go into classrooms, armed with lab kits they have made themselves, and share an experiment with the class.

"The kids love it; the volunteers love it; the teachers love it," Procell said, adding that watching someone else perform experiments is fun, but "when they do it themselves, it adds something. ... Their faces are incredible."

Hannah is a science fan. "I like going into the lab and doing things, working with magnets," said the sixth-grader as she hopped between tables set up to study electricity, the physics of bubbles, magnets and surfactants.

Kids were making circuits to set off lights and buzzers; trailing together brightly colored magnets; mixing sheets of polyvinyl alcohol with water and borax solution to make slime (the surfactant lesson); and finding out how bubbles react to dry ice.

Dennis Bevilacqua, a contractor who maintains electronic instrumentation on equipment at the Edgewood center, was a first-time volunteer - talked into it by his wife, Vicky, who is a chemist. He said the hands-on approach is how he likes to learn, and Kids & Chemistry is a neat way to share that knowledge.

"It's great," Bevilacqua said. "I'll be coming back. At first, I wasn't sure if the kids would be interested. In no time, the interest that was generated. ... It was really fun to see the kids want to participate."

Procell said she got the idea for the program after reading an article about another government agency that works with schoolchildren. She said she hopes that as more scientists in the area learn about the Kids & Chemistry program, it will spark a chain reaction of new groups to work with children in neighboring counties.

Kids & Chemistry, an outreach effort by the American Chemical Society, is funded locally.

"We don't have any set funding," said Procell.

The group gets most of its contributions from companies such as EAI Corp. in Abingdon, an APG contractor that specializes in homeland security issues.

Denise Doesburg, a science teacher at St. Margaret and wife of Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg, head of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Defense Command at Aberdeen, said the program "puts a face on scientists." She was a classroom volunteer with the program before she began teaching at the middle school, and is still the group's treasurer.

"It gets the kids interested in science. It's not as boring as most think - some might consider science as a career," she said.

Doesburg helped out for part of the evening working a giant bubble wand crafted out of a hula hoop and PVC pipe. Kids clambered onto a stool set in the middle of a kiddie pool filled with glycerin, liquid dish detergent and water. Doesburg swept the wand up - careful to hold it at an angle - and encased the kids in a giant bubble.

She said students had been excited about the thought of being put into a bubble, and from the reactions, they weren't disappointed.

"I thought it was very cool, the way it looked," said Max Goodwin, 11, a sixth-grader. "I've never really done anything like that before."

Information: Kids & Chemistry, P.O. Box 82, Gunpowder 21010-0082 or on the Web at

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad