The Magic of Science

How diapers and gel beads can help build a better tomorrow

The sign outside reads “Gleeson Hall,” and just below that, in smaller font, “Chemical Engineering.” As you walk up the steps and into the lobby of the brick building, glass display cases full of student awards line the walls, and you hear the echo of children’s laughter. You turn the corner and peer into a classroom. The classic-style school desks, which will stoically support college students and their books come fall, now seem to wiggle under the weight of squirming third graders.

Chemical Engineering Professor and Executive Director of Pre-College K-12 Outreach Programs at Oregon State University, Skip Rochefort, Ph.D., stands in front of the classroom. His wild, curly, grey hair gives him the slight, and very apropos, air of a mad scientist as he cuts open a baby diaper and pours out a white powder. The powder is super absorbent polymer, or SAP for short, and it can absorb up to 300 times its weight in distilled water — as these kids will soon find out. Dr. Rochefort adds the SAP he collected from the diaper to a shallow Petri dish, and then he pulls out a mysterious vial of clear, yellow liquid. “Eww! Gross!” the kids exclaim, as “Dr. Skip” holds up the vial, and they watch intently as he pours its contents over the SAP.

What they can’t see is that, while Dr. Rochefort’s describing the amazing abilities of SAP, it’s already absorbed the mysterious, yellow liquid, expanded to fill the dish, and formed a semi-rigid gel. Dr. Rochefort holds the dish up for the class to see, like a magician about to perform a trick. Then he turns the dish upside-down over the head of a boy in the front row. The boy covers his head with his hands and closes his eyes as the children next to him squeal and try to escape the inevitable “splat” but are trapped within the confines of their desks. The entire classroom seems to hold its breath — but the “splat” never comes. Slowly, the boy in the front row uncovers his eyes and looks up at the intact gel above his head, which was liquid just moments ago. Dr. Rochefort gives a short chuckle as his face breaks into a big grin. His trick has worked its magic once again.

The magic of gel beads

Of course, Dr. Rochefort has more than one trick up his sleeve, and he has fused together his passion for polymer science, teaching, and outreach to develop a variety of fun activities that teach kids of all ages about science and engineering. Polymers are technically defined as a substance with a molecular structure built from smaller repeating units — but most people known them better as plastics. However, the term actually covers a broad range of both synthetic and natural materials: for instance, the rubber in a car tire or the silk a spider uses to spin its web. Polymers are ubiquitous in our daily lives, and that makes them a great platform for introducing kids to science and engineering.

You can even find examples of polymers in the food we eat. For example, the futuristic soft drink, Orbitz, marketed by Clearly Canadian in the late 90’s, got its Jetson-esque style from small, neon-colored gelatin balls suspended by invisible strings throughout the bottle. If you’ve never noticed it on store shelves, well, that’s because it wasn’t very popular with consumers. Apparently, the market wasn’t ready for flavor amalgamations like Pineapple-Banana-Cherry-Coconut or drinks with a startling resemblance to a lava lamp. However, it did inspire great conversations about the science behind its space-age facade, as well as one of Dr. Rochefort’s most popular outreach activities — gel beads.

Every year, Oregon State University Colleges of Science and Engineering host Discovery Days, an outreach program that brings 3,000 kids to campus where they participate in science activities ranging from examining live animals to learning about polymers. There kids can make their own Orbitz-inspired gel beads by dropping a colorful sodium alginate solution in calcium chloride. Sodium alginate is commonly used as an additive in food, and, when this seaweed-extract hits the salt solution, it magically forms a squishy gel bead.

Of course, it’s not really magic — it’s science, but kids love it. “There are kids that come and make gel beads every single year,” said Dr. Rochefort. “At first, it’s like, ‘hey make these cool gel beads, take ‘em home, throw ‘em at your brother and sister,’… but every time they come you can move their understanding of the process a little bit farther ahead.” Thus, students can go from making cool gel beads to learning about polymer science, chemical bond formation, and diffusion — for starters. “Things like gel beads and diapers are so important,” said Dr. Rochefort, “because they show you things in daily life that have a lot of science [and engineering] in them.”

The importance of science in daily life

According to a European survey recently commissioned by Microsoft to understand why women are choosing not to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Dr. Rochefort’s hit the nail on the head. Both “practical experience and hands-on exercises,” as well as “real-life applications,” made the survey’s top-five list for drivers that play a significant role in sustaining young women’s interest in STEM. The remaining three factors included “female role models,” “teacher mentors,” and “confidence in equality.”

Science, technology, engineering, and, yes, even math, have a powerful presence in our everyday lives, and it’s showing kids the connection between the contents of a textbook and the contents of our world that will make their eyes light up — and we need that. How else will we engineer a better tomorrow? We need a strong STEM workforce to discover cures for disease, to design faster computers, and to develop cleaner energy sources.

However, the window of opportunity for parents and teachers to nurture an interest in science and engineering often closes too soon. “All the data shows that you lose most kids from science in middle school when they’re going through a lot of life changes,” said Dr. Rochefort. “It’s not cool sometimes to be the science nerd.” Microsoft’s study echoed these findings. It found that girls often gain interest in STEM subjects around eleven, but, by the time they hit fifteen, that interest has already dropped significantly.

While teachers may have the biggest opportunity to nurture a child’s interest in STEM subjects, educational policies in the United States have left many of them with their hands tied. When asked what schools could do to improve science and engineering education, Dr. Rochefort responded without a moment’s hesitation: “Get rid of the test.”

In 2015, a study performed by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools put standardized testing in the national spotlight with articles appearing in the Washington Post and EdWeek. The study found that students spend an alarming number of hours — between 20 and 25 every school year — taking standardized tests, and the pinnacle of the standardized testing craze comes right as children reach that precious window of opportunity that could determine their future interest in STEM.

While the initial motivation for implementing mandatory testing was honorable — the government wanted to keep schools accountable and safeguard struggling and historically-underserved students — it birthed an aggressive testing regime that began to dictate everything from the funding schools receive to teacher compensation and classroom curriculum. As a result, lessons orbit around teaching students how to fill in the correct bubble on a Scantron, instead of exploring the scientific wonders of the universe that surrounds them. Not only do these bubbles constrain the facts we choose to teach our children, but they also limit the skills we teach them and the value we place upon those skills.

Teaching kids to think outside-the-bubble

There are many skills and attributes that standardized tests simply cannot measure, as Dan Beaupré of Education Quests asserts in “Testing Our Schools: A Guide for Parents,” including a child’s ability to complete in-depth projects, to challenge assumptions, or to cooperate in a group. Scantron forms also cannot evaluate a child’s motivation to perform well, their curiosity for learning, or their creativity. Not only do standardized tests fail to capture “the full range of a child’s academic abilities,” but teaching to the test also devalues important skill sets that could arguably have an even greater impact on a child’s success in adulthood and the contribution they make to society.

“The thing that we do the poorest on in our country,” said Dr. Rochefort, “is to wipe out the creativity of these young minds.” When he poses a question to a classroom full of kindergarteners — boom — thirty hands fly into the air. However, if he poses a question to college seniors in chemical engineering — crickets. They’re too afraid they will choose the wrong bubble. “So that’s our educational system,” continued Dr. Rochefort. “We stem creativity and independent thought, and then we try to come back and say ‘well, let’s teach innovation.’ Well, we had innovation when we were young — we just taught it out of our kids.”

As the battle to free the nation’s schools from the dictatorship of standardized testing ensues, we can help children learn to value and hone their outside-the-bubble skills through activities outside of the classroom. Parents can play an important role in encouraging their kids to ask questions, like “what happens to water when it freezes,” to experiment, and to find solutions. Not only do these activities promote curiosity and creativity, but they can also introduce children to scientific concepts and their daily applications. According to Dr. Rochefort, “The best thing parents can do with their kids is just to have them do stuff and not be afraid to make a mess.”

However, he also recognizes that these activities take time, and they also take a different way of thinking than most parents are used to nowadays. With all of the technology, computers, iPads, video games, and cell phones, clasped in the hands of the next-generation, it’s also difficult to get kids’ attention. That’s why, in Dr. Rochefort’s mind, doing activities with kids is so important: “If you play in dirt, you understand dirt. You can see someone on an iPad digging dirt all day, but you don’t know what it’s like to dig dirt unless you actually do it.”

The science citizens of the world

Of course, many parents, especially in low-income households, may not have the time to stop and make a mess with their kids in the name of science or the educational background needed to teach scientific concepts. For these kids, science outreach programs can make a huge difference. However, outreach isn’t just about attracting kids to STEM careers — it’s also about promoting science literacy. “From a practical point-of-view, I really don’t think you can be a citizen of the world in these times without knowing some science,” commented Dr. Rochefort. Without that knowledge, future generations will be at the mercy of a handful of experts to decide the future of our nation and our world, and what kind of democracy is that?

“We really need to start worrying about the lower end of our distribution and what we can do to help them,” said Dr. Rochefort, “and that’s where it becomes hard.” For twenty years, he has tried to reach children through science and engineering outreach programs at Oregon State University, and “after twenty years, we’re still struggling with diversity,” he said. According to Dr. Rochefort, the percentage of women in engineering is still well below half, and, while the number of Latinos in engineering has grown a bit due to the increase in the Latino population, “the number of African-Americans and Native Americans [in engineering] is just abysmal.”

Many children don’t live near a college campus where they can participate in science outreach activities. That’s why Oregon State decided to bring science and engineering to students in rural areas of Oregon, with a particular emphasis on serving Latino and Native American populations, through mobile STEM camps. However, Dr. Rochefort said, “We’re still only touching a small number of people,” and the challenge of improving science literacy still looms large.

Rising to the challenge of nurturing the next-generation’s interest in science and engineering, building a strong STEM workforce, and improving science literacy in the broader population will require a lot of out-of-the-bubble skills — including perseverance, collaboration, and creativity. To rise as a country, we need everyone to rise up. So, tear open those diapers, and let’s show our children — ALL of our children — that science and engineering is fun, that it’s important, and that it’s for everyone.

Try it at home!

links for guided science and engineering experiments

“Skip’s Corner”  : Dr. Skip Rochefort is an Associate Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department  at Oregon State University who has been involved in K-12 outreach and recruitment/retention issues in engineering since his arrival at OSU in 1993. The primary goals of this column are to let you know what College of Engineering is doing in the K-12 education and recruitment/retention arenas, and to provide those of you with interests in K-12 outreach (parents, teachers, friends) with activities for your endeavors that relate to the engineering disciplines.

The Fizz Factor : Which soda has the most POP? I’m sure we’ve all experienced the fizz factor at some points in our lives, whether it be opening a soda can and having it spill out all over the table (not fun) or purposely shaking-up a soda and spraying a friend (FUN!). We probably all have our own personal ideas on which sodas make the most fizz….and so do the kids! There are various ways to figure this out.

Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP) and Soil Absorbency : A simple experiment to look at Super Water Absorbant Soils. Designed by Dr. Skip Rochefort and Norm Fraker at the Chemical Engineering Department, Oregon State University.

*you can do a simpler version of this experiment that just measures the amount of water that the SAP can absorb just by adding small increments of water to SAP until it can’t hold anymore.

The GEL BEAD Process: Journey to Jell-O Land : This activity introduces students to the concept of polymers and gels. Then it will provide students an understanding of how the pancreas works, and why it is important in the prevention of diseases such as diabetes. They will learn about how an engineer might go about creating an artificial pancreas, and how the pancreas is similar in ways to the ORBITZ* drink.

*Inspired by ORBITZ drink, ORBITZ was a futuristic drink from Clearly Canadian that debuted and died in the 1990s, for more information on the experiment and the drink click here!

Other sources for parents and teachers to find science activities:

TeachEngineering : The TeachEngineering digital library is a collaborative project between faculty, students and teachers associated with five founding partner universities, with National Science Foundation funding. TeachEngineering is a searchable, web-based digital library collection populated with standards-based engineering curricula for use by K-12 teachers and engineering faculty to make applied science and math come alive through engineering design in K-12 settings. The TeachEngineering collection provides educators with *free* access to a growing curricular resource of activities, lessons, units and living labs.

LABScI : LABScI is a collaboration between the Spakowitz Lab at Stanford University, Palo Alto Unified School District, and Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital. On the site, you will find a variety of STEM-based labs and activities designed to develop a broader STEM-based laboratory curriculum for middle-school and high-school students in non-traditional educational environments such as hospital school classrooms, hospital bedsides, home schools, or other resource-limited settings.


About the Author:

Meghaan Ferreira received her doctorate degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University in 2015 after receiving her bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Oregon State University. Her interest in science and engineering started after participating in Science and Engineering for Youth (SESEY). The week-long camp, which was founded by Dr. Skip Rochefort in 1997, teaches high school girls and minority students about science and engineering through hands-on research projects.

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