I'm giving a speech to middle-school students about "chemistry". Any advice?

It’s our local You Be The Chemist! shindig. My company is sponsoring it. I’m all for it, it’s neat, chemistry is neat and I’d like to really make a good impression and get these kids fired up about chemistry, engineering and science! Woo! fist-pump :wink: First for the kids with an interest in science (I think it’s about 40 kids from local schools that were interested enough to participate, there’s a quiz game and a dinner as well) but secondly for our CEO who will be watching me give this speech.

I’m actually fine with public speaking. I’ve done it often, given presentations to corporate boards, scientists, engineers, the whole gamut. Even did debate back in HS and won some state awards. Giving a speech doesn’t worry or bother me. I don’t need to “picture everyone in their underwear”, especially since these are kids and man, that’s just not right. :smiley: I can speechify just fine.

What I’m unsure about - these are kids, age 12-14. I was a kid age 12-14 once, but it’s been 20 years since then. Honestly I have no idea what tone to take or what really gets youths this age interested. Don’t have children of my own yet, have basically zero contact with adolescents. All I remember about that age is just how awkward I always felt and acted.

Any teachers, parents, coaches, tutors, mentors, anything - got any advice on how to craft a good speech that will interest young people of these ages?

Breaking Bad references. No they’re not supposed to watch it, yes some of them probably do.

Explosions, especially for the boys, e.g. sodium in water. If allowed.

“40 kids from local schools that were interested enough to participate,” so that implies kids who are not going to think science sucks? That’s good. If you’re Powerpointing, less words, more pictures that you explain. But you might know that, and the advice holds true for adult audiences most of the time.

When is it? We’ve got “Brain Awareness Week” in two weeks, and I think middle schools are visited. Almost everybody wants to touch a human brain.

Does it have to be a speech or can you do show and tell? Can you show movies?

I blame my interest in chemistry on three things:

  • visiting a local chemical factory one of whose products happened to be the polymer hairs on the hood I was wearing (8th grade, and years later I worked there). Don’t think you can bring that. They also had the coolest waste-water treatment plant: we’d always thought of “waste treatment” as “stinky” and this was just two olympic-size pools, the first one of which looked dirty-green and the second one clean (polymer-eating bacteria in both, plus filtration systems we saw just as “big towers”).
  • two superb teachers (grades 7th-12th). Nope, can’t bring them either.
  • and that demo where the first one of those teachers put some of the same powder in three different porcelain bowls, added an itty bit of three different powders to each, lit them up… look! Fireworks in a bowl! And all different colors! Not something one can do in the aula magna, but a pretty pic of multi-colored fireworks and an explanation that the colors are obtained through chemistry does grab people’s attention.

Fundamentals first! I’d start with the Schrödinger equation.

Since this is asking for opinions, I’m loading this in the RV and taking it from MPSIMS over to IMHO.

Hal Briston - MPSIMS Moderator

Do a demonstration if you can.

Something like this might work…

Paper chromatography: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S17nMwZwe4

I recommend interesting practical experiments, if possible with a volunteer.
It’s Chemistry, so a) you can predict precisely what happens b) it can look amazing.
Introduce an experiment, then ask the pupils what they think is going to happen.

Give a couple of examples showing how Chemistry affects their lives (preferably including a practical.)

Tie in your company specifically (won’t hurt if your CEO is watching.)

Include one joke.

With chemistry, the more showing and less talking you do, the better. Demonstrations!

What does your company do? I agree that a practical demonstration, particularly if something goes BOOM! will get their attention. But this is also the age group that is just beginning to realize that they’re going to have to figure out What They Want To Be When They Grow Up. If you can find some way to tie in things that go BOOM! while explaining why that’s important and relevant to STEMI careers, you’ll have a winner, and a very happy CEO. If you make widgets, bring a widget, show them what it does, talk about what you hope it will do someday when their brilliant minds will improve on it, talk about some spectacular failures in widget makeing. Ask them what kind of widget they can imagine improving their lives. Who knows, you may end up with a new idea for the R& D folks!

When I was 14, I had yet to take any science class other than biology. But 14-year-olds aren’t dummies, either. Just focus on avoiding jargon and explain any elements that aren’t household names (if you’re using, say, Ununpentium in a demonstration). They’re old enough that you can talk to them like any old adult who’s lacking a professional scientific background. Just talk normally.

Girls love these just as much.

If you can get the equipment for this one, it might be better than the paper chromatography one I posted earlier:

Separation of purple kool aid into red and blue:

a clock reaction that you start and let run is amazing.

real life applications: take bleach, Bar Keepers Friend and Oxyclean show how they all are oxidizing cleaners.

explosions and actions are nice attention getters.

though i think it prompts kids to think chemistry is something to watch. or maybe how something is made in a chemical plant.

we live chemistry, physics, biology. we are chemistry, physics, biology. our food is chemicals. chemistry cause living organisms to be living.

wonderment, practicality and a healthy planet are all had by knowing science.

This. Plus, I would say let them ask questions as you go instead of making them save their questions for the end. Kids, especially at this age, are interested RIGHT NOW, not in 20 minutes when it’s close to lunch or dismissal.

Two (no more than 4) solutions - name them, if there is any chance the name will mean anything, else "what kind of thing it is - like household ammonia, but with… might not be a good selection.

Ask them to guess what will happen when they are combined. At this age, the coolest chemistry they are likely to have seen is the baking soda submarine, so it won’t take much to impress - explosions (hydrogen and oxygen are simpler and safer - squirt a bit of each into a toy balloon (on the end of a stick) and ignite. Anything producing foam or sustained light would be cool as well.

How to demonstrate safely an exothermic reaction might be cool.

Are we still teaching High Schoolers the “valence theory”? If so, avoid it at all costs - do not be party to a known lie.

Can you come up with a working rocket engine - with separate fuel and oxidizer tanks and valves and mixing chamber. An inverted cone would be a nice touch as a nozzle.

Too bad you didn’t draw Physics - a 25,000 volt neon transformer will nail them to their seats.

My daughter’s middle school chem teacher used to open her remarks on Parents’ Night by pumping methane into soapy water and lighting the bubbles.

Damn right we paid attention after that!

Don’t take yourself too seriously. A little self-deprecating humor goes a long way towards losening up that age group.

Don’t try to “make chemistry interesting”. It is interesting. Show them.

Related: don’t deprecate your subject. Deprecate your spelling, or your dance skills, or your coordination, but don’t start with “I know you all think Chemistry is boring, right? A lot of people think that, but they are wrong . . .” Just be so aflame with a passion for chemistry that it’s clear no one would even suggest to you that it might be boring. Such a frame of reference is so bizarre to you that you can’t even conceptualize it.

Wacky analogies and goofy narratives are golden. But they have to be ironically wacky and goofy; otherwise you come across as condescending. You want to project this aura that you know you are being silly, but it’s funny, so it’s cool.

You cannot be too animated.

The “valence theory” being that chemical properties are mostly determined by the electrons in the highest-energy orbital? What’s wrong with that?

chuckle :stuck_out_tongue:

You presume I could still explain it. I learned it well enough to pass my P. Chem exams back in college, then specifically drank to forget it all. That blurred boundary shared among mathematics, physics and chemistry is interesting as all heck, but I sure ain’t using it day to day at my chemical manufacturing job.


In Purdue, Freshman Chem (101 or some such number), about the first day of lab, the instructor (who was absolutely full of himself) asked for a show of hands for "How many were taught the Valence Theory of Bonding in HS?). About half the hands went up.
“Well, that is not the real way it works; that explanation is close enough for most reactions, but I will teach you The Real Way”. I never cared enough to challenge it, but yes, we were then taught another theory of predicting reactions.
I always suspected that the first lab session of Chem 505 (post-grad) would include the question “How many of you were taught the…”.
I switched to Poli Sci, so never explored the question.