Institute for Chemical Education Celebrates 30 Years of Chemistry Camps

Students at a 2013 session of Chemistry Camp

Campers talk to their college-age group leader during a group activity in 2013.

The Chemistry Building’s first-floor hallway tends to be a quiet place during the summer. Undergraduates lounge in the hallways, studying for tests and chatting with classmates. Campus tour groups pass through several times per day, peeking in lab windows as they pass by. But a flurry of activity swept the area in July, filling the halls with energy, excitement, and clamors for lab goggles. Chemistry Camp was in session.

This summer marked the 30th anniversary of Chemistry Camps, run by the Institute for Chemical Education (ICE). Over the course of two weeks, more than 150 middle school students with voracious appetites for science and engineering participated in the camps.

Thanks to financial assistance from Sigma-Aldrich Corporation this year, an even greater number of kids participated in this profound experience. Students with a demonstrated need, including participants from the Dane County Boys & Girls Clubs, were designated Sigma-Aldrich Scholars and received financial assistance.

The Chemistry Camps program began in 1984 with the original “Fun with Chemistry” theme; the program has since expanded to include themes such as super hero science and food chemistry. This year’s offerings included two “Fun with Chemistry” sessions as well as “Fun with Forensic Chemistry” and “Fun with Inventions Chemistry” (designed in partnership with the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center).

Each day, the camps start with a guest speaker: a graduate student, professor, or scientist from industry. Through the speakers’ talks and demonstrations, campers learn about the diversity of people who use chemistry in their jobs and the types of work they do. Safety instructions follow the guest speakers’ talks in order to prepare the middle-schoolers to work in the chemistry labs. With activity packets in hand, campers then follow trained undergraduate group leaders into the first-floor chemistry labs, where they learn about scientific concepts most students don’t encounter until high school. Cheering and laughter often ensue as the kids try their hands at metal flame tests, plating pennies, decorating shirts with ink chromatography, and finger print analysis. For those who are interested, engineering challenges— including the design and testing of robot arms and marble roller coasters—conclude the day. By the end of the week, many students have exchanged phone numbers with their new camp friends, and the kids leave knowing that they can succeed in the world of chemistry.

Former campers say that these camp experiences have a lasting effect. “My love for science started in seventh grade at a Chemistry Camp,” former camper Sevahn Vorperian writes in her college application essay. “I loved meticulously following the steps in my experiment packet and celebrating with my lab partner after watching blue crystals form or making a functional pH indicator. I enjoyed triumphantly exiting the lab after a day of experimenting and breaking the seal my bulky lab goggles [created] on my sweaty face.”

– Story by Institute for Chemical Education