The Science Show 2/4/22

Recollections by Richard Bleil

College and university faculty can do amazing things when they’re given the opportunity and not burned out.  Yes, that includes me.  As a professor, I myself had some pretty major accomplishments under several deans, but, unfortunately, one dean in particular turned her venom towards me and drove me away from these remarkable efforts.  This might sound like a boast (and even to me it sounds very arrogant to say) but stick with me here.

In 1999 I joined a state university where I would remain for eleven years.  Under my first dean, I wrote a physical science major which, unlike most physical science majors, was based on actual science and the standards and recommendations of the American Chemical Society and the American Physics Society.  The idea was to write an undergraduate Chemical Physics program, but they wouldn’t let me call it that because it sounded too challenging.  I defended the proposal and successfully got it implemented, and unofficially ran it.  The next dean asked me to write a Forensic Science program, which I did because the science coordinator (a biologist) refused to do so himself.  Since forensic science is more strongly based on the physical sciences (and usually a minor within some physical science major), I wrote it to go hand-in-hand with the physical science program.  There were several course substitutions between the two, but many students actually double majored.  The number of students in the physical sciences had grown from three when I first joined to well over thirty by the time I left, rivaling (and for a time beating) the number of biology majors which, frankly, is amazing.  The final dean refused to recognize the success of these majors, claimed that nobody knew who had even written it (even after I provided proof that I had written it), and took the forensic program away from me to give to a new hire, a friend of hers, to act as director.  That pretty much drove me away from the programs altogether, and I refused to do anything beyond what was required of me as a professor, something that she found quite insulting.

While I was in charge, though, I did several wonderful things that brought a lot of attention to the university, especially around the local schools.  For example, most years, I hosted a chemistry show for elementary school children.  The auditorium was always packed, and every year it grew.  Yes, there were explosions and color changes (and usually we talked about chemical versus physical changes), but some of my favorite demonstrations were so much more fun.  In one such demonstration, I had filled a large round-bottom flask with ammonia gas, with a tube extending to a beaker of water with an indicator in it that was clear in the water but would turn blue in a base.  There was a little “trigger” set up, a small dropper filled with water.  I asked for a volunteer and had the absolute sweetest and cutest young volunteer I had ever had. 

Now, I enjoyed “playing” with the kids.  So, I brought her up and explained, “now all you have to do is squeeze this bulb.”  As she reached for it and was clearly ready to do so, I turned my back and pretended to look in a book.  As soon as I heard her squeeze it, I said, “but before you do…”  The water from the beaker shot up into the round-bottom flask and turned blue instantly as it did so, creating a fountain effect.  I turned back, and she had a horrified expression on her face thinking she had done something wrong.  The audience laughed, and I reassured her that in fact she did great.  I elicited a round of applause for her, and gave her a t-shirt, one that I had made for my student volunteers, but all we had was an extra-large left.  So, I had her put her hands up, dropped the t-shirt over her hands, and basically she had a chemistry show dress that she had to lift to return to her seat so she wouldn’t trip.

I loved playing with my audience.  One of the more interesting demonstrations is the “oscillating clock” reaction.  This reaction always seems to do nothing at first, but eventually will turn to a different color.  What makes this demonstration fascinating, though, is that it doesn’t remain in that new color.  Eventually, it changes back to the original color, and in time, back to the colored form, and oscillates back and forth.  There were three solutions to mix for this reaction, so I was telling the secret to success, listening to your teachers, doing your homework, and paying attention.  “Eventually,” I said, “things change for the better.”  About this time there was a color change.  I then walked in front of the table where the reaction occurred, and said, “and once you have your success, nothing can take that away from you.”  By then, the color faded back to clear, and the students tried desperately to get my attention to look back at it.  Of course, as soon as they stopped, I knew the reaction had gone back to its changed color, so I turned back and said, “no, look, it’s the same” and again turned away.  This oscillating clock reaction then became like a game, and for five or six cycles, each one getting louder as the students tried harder and harder to get me to turn around, I had them convinced that I had no idea what was happening. 

Then the dean pulled the rug out from under me.  I do not know if the chemist they hired to replace me continued or not.

What did not continue was the Forensic Science Workshop.  Along with two other professors (and great friends), every summer we had a “day camp” for high school students, going over the steps of forensic science.  There was always a different crime (usually one in which the victim had to be taken to the emergency room, so we didn’t have to deal with bodies), and always, inexplicably, the police were too busy and needed the class to help gather and analyze evidence.  It became a very popular mystery, as every year the number of applications increased to the point where we had to find clever ways to split the class between two locations.  Once the dean took the program away and gave it to her friend, I know there were many inquiries (as they came to me but I always had them transferred to the new program head), but the forensic workshop never again occurred.

It’s sad.  These were such fun events, but I was burned out.  We had a part-time physicist, but she managed to convince the board of regents to consider hiring a second one.  I had as many majors as the biology department, and yet when I left, they had hired a fifth biology professor while I was still the sole chemist.  There is only so much a person can do and I was burned out.  It was time for me to go.

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