Burnett shares enthusiasm for chemistry at Hillside Elementary

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Joe Burnett in a lab coat stands mid students at tables.
Joseph Burnett answers students’ chemistry questions while visiting Hillside Elementary in Des Moines. Submitted photo.

Questions, curiosity and enthusiasm drive Joseph Burnett to share the wonders of chemistry with students.

Burnett, senior lecturer of chemistry, recently shared chemistry demonstrations with sixth-graders at Hillside Elementary School in Des Moines. The students had so many questions before he even started that he had to cut them short to have time to share the demonstrations.

“They were enthusiastic about everything,” Burnett said. “That was invigorating and it was cool to see that there was that great curiosity.”

He was invited by Kim Alowitz, an English as a second language (ESL) teacher and Brett Chiles, a science teacher at Hillside Elementary. Around 20 percent of their students are linguistically diverse, speaking more than one language, and some are in the English Language Learning program at the school.

“My students learn best when they have several concrete examples or demos,” Alowitz said. “Calling in a ‘real’ professor and ‘real’ scientist, in the kids’ eyes, gave a bigger impact to the demonstration.”

The students had questions ranging from specifics about the chemical reactions Burnett has worked with to what kinds of jobs use chemistry.

“With an increase in STEM jobs and majors, it is important we infuse science as much as possible,” Alowitz said. “It is also necessary for kids to see science in ‘real life.’ That way they do not just think science is for scientists. It is a philosophy that we all use daily.”

Burnett showed the students several different experiments that demonstrated various concepts in chemistry. Density was displayed through dropping a golf ball and two bowling balls into water.

“Younger students tend to think that because the golf ball is small that it’s going to float,” he said. “Of course, what they see is that the golf ball sinks.”

The bowling balls are trickier, as one sinks and the other floats. He then proceeded to add salt or ethanol to the water to change the density of water and change what sinks and floats.

He also did experiments showing rate of reactions and how catalysts can speed up reactions, experiments that showed the changing of a solution from a basic solution to an acidic solution and an especially popular demonstration of liquid nitrogen vaporizing as it poured onto the floor. The students did their own hands-on experiment in chromatography separating ink into its component colors. The demos Burnett selected were favorites of his own.

“I selected [these demos] because visually they’re pretty cool or there’s something about them that makes them remarkable and unexpected,” he said.

Catching that student enthusiasm and sharing the wonder of science is, for Burnett, what it’s all about, whether it’s to sixth-graders or undergraduates.

“I really enjoy teaching in the classroom at ISU,” he said. “That’s my favorite part of the job. [Outreach] is the best kind of teaching in the sense that you get to do a lot of gee-whiz-wow-bang kind of things.”