A cafeteria filled with second- through fifth-graders watched quietly as Helen Whitty, an educator from the Maryland Science Center, mixed calcium carbide, a gravel-like substance, into a beaker of water.
Some students murmured as the solution started to change color and, importantly, began to bubble — a sign that the chemical reaction was producing gas. Whitty took a lighter, ignited it and stuck the flame into the beaker.
With a whooshing sound, the acetylene gas that was produced in the beaker ignited, creating a mini-fireball.
Some students flinched, some jumped and some gasped. And then the students, sitting with their legs crossed on the floor, began to clap and cheer.
The demonstration was one of several that Whitty, along with fellow science educator Hannah Dickmeyer, performed at Arbutus Elementary School on Dec. 18, as part of the Maryland Science Center’s traveling science program.
The school assembly, titled “Let’s Science THAT,” encourages students to learn about the scientific method — forming a hypothesis and then making observations. But for Whitty and Dickmeyer, it’s also about getting students involved more generally.
“We hope they maybe remember one thing, one fact,” Dickmeyer said after the assembly. “More important is encouraging [students] to like science and to pursue it.”
Pete Yancone, senior educator at the Maryland Science Center, said the visits to schools help keep “the bigger picture” in mind.
“It’s a challenge for teachers to provide those kind of real-world experiences, the phenomena, the things that inspired the original scientists, the curious circumstances that made them wonder,” Yancone said.
The science center has two teams that travel to schools across the state, spending about 150 days during the school calendar performing demonstrations, Yancone said.
“We can bring a perspective that is perhaps larger than a classroom might be able to maintain, especially in elementary school,” where teachers are not focused just on teaching science but in covering an array of subjects, he said.
Sometimes, that perspective requires improvisation. At one point in the assembly, a stage light that was going to be used in a demonstration of how light can be concentrated by reflection, stubbornly refused to turn on; something in the circuitry was broken.
Instead of dropping the topic and moving on, Whitty and Dickmeyer were able to turn it into a teaching moment. They riffed off each other, giving a short, impromptu lesson about how circuitry works, explaining to the students that electricity only works when current can “flow” through complete circuits.
“We have a whole show on electricity,” Whitty later explained.
Other demonstrations from the day included freezing a racquetball in liquid nitrogen and dropping it on bricks to make it shatter, as a way to explain how molecules move at different temperatures, and using a vacuum and a trash bag to demonstrate air pressure.
The day’s programming ended with Whitty and Dickmeyer pouring a beaker of hot water into a bucket of liquid nitrogen to create a giant, white cloud — and to demonstrate how liquids can transform into gases.
The Maryland Science Center offers a variety of programs to schools, depending on the grade level and size of the audience. In addition to “Let’s Science THAT,” the center holds sessions on dinosaurs, engineering and astronomy, among others.
While visits to the science center’s exhibit halls are free for teachers, students and chaperones on field trips, the classroom and assembly visits are not. A day of two assemblies can cost a school up to $1,150.
Each year, through a lottery system, a certain number of schools are selected in each school system in Maryland to receive a state-funded discount for the programs, which require the schools to pay just $60 instead of the full price.
The number of schools in each jurisdiction that receive the aid depends on the size of the school system, Yancone explained. In Kent County and other small jurisdictions, almost all the elementary and middle schools can be covered.
In larger school systems, like Baltimore County’s, “we just make sure that whoever got the program last year doesn’t this year,” he said.
Don Setzer, an assistant principal at Arbutus Elementary School, said he enjoyed watching the assembl program and seeing how the students reacted.
“The kids are truly engaged,” he said. “It turns them on to science.”