Chemist father wows Monroe students with science experiments

Monroe School students show varying reactions as they participate in an experiment involving predictions of items that one might guess would fl oat in water and items that donít. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Jan. 16, 2013 10:53 am Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 1:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Travis Woodward of Quincy is sharing his love of science with students at Monroe Elementary School this week.

Woodward is a chemist with a playful streak. He and his 5-year-old daughter, Helena, a kindergarten student at Monroe, spend hours together at home doing fun science experiments using ordinary household items.

When educators at Monroe School heard about this, they invited Woodward to come to the school to demonstrate some of his favorite science activities.

Woodward accepted the invitation in a big way. He opted to take two days of vacation Tuesday and Wednesday from his job at Green Recycle America in Hannibal, Mo., so he could spend both days showcasing fun science experiments to every student in the K-3 school.

Starting Tuesday morning and continuing through the end of Wednesday's academic schedule, each class took a turn visiting a science room where Woodward held court. He carried out a series of 30-minute demonstrations featuring about eight of his favorite chemistry tricks, including "can crusher," "balloon blow up" and "relight the fire."

He also passed along some handouts explaining the tricks so students could perhaps try them at home with their parents as a family activity.

Woodward said he's been giving science demonstrations for years and enjoys watching the excitement sweep over the faces of children seeing them for the first time.

"My big reason for doing this is I've been given this gift and this ability," he said. "Also, I really enjoy thinking of the kids and their parents being able to go home and play together, with science being a conduit. I like the fun that science can bring."

There was plenty of fun taking place Tuesday during Woodward's first series of demonstrations, which opened with a display of what happens when dry ice gets dropped into a container of warm water. The frozen carbon dioxide "sublimes" into a gas state, bubbling furiously in the water while generating an eerie, white fog.

Woodward then moved on to one of his favorite tricks, which involves crushing an aluminum can by using air pressure. He does this by putting a few drops of water in an empty can and then heats the can over a small stove, turning the water into steam. He then takes the can in a gloved hand, turns it over and dips it in a pot of cold water, causing the steam to condense and creating a vacuum inside the can. The can immediately crushes itself.

"That's awesome!" one boy exclaimed as he watched Woodward crush several cans in quick succession.

Woodward also had some fun mixing baking soda with vinegar, a concoction that immediately bubbled over the sides of an oversized mug and spilled onto a counter top.

Woodward proceeded to put some baking powder inside a deflated balloon and then stretched the balloon's opening over the mouth of a large bottle containing a small amount of vinegar. As he lifted the balloon, the baking power spilled down into the vinegar, and the balloon quickly filled with carbon dioxide rising from within the bottle.

Woodward then wowed students with a trick that involved putting out a fire on the end of a popsicle stick by dipping the burning end into a glass jar used previously for a vinegar/baking soda experiment. The remaining carbon dioxide inside the jar immediately extinguished the flame. Then Woodward dipped the stick's still-smouldering end into a jar in which he had earlier mixed some yeast with hydrogen peroxide, which had bubbled up and produced pure oxygen. The stick's glowing end promptly combusted, relighting the fire Woodward had just put out.

Students oohed and aahed in amazement.

"Is anyone here a golf expert?" Woodward asked, causing half the kids in the room to raise their hands.

He then showed the students two golf balls. One was a regular, hard-covered ball. The other was a lightweight, plastic ball used for practice shots. Woodward held both balls aloft and dropped them simultaneously. They hit the table at exactly the same time, thanks to the force of gravity. But when he placed both balls in a fish tank full of water, the regular ball fell to the bottom because it had more density while the lighter ball floated on top.

Students then eagerly took turns dropping fruit, wood and metal objects into the tank to see which items floated and which sank.

Woodward said he enjoys exposing students to some of the wonders of science and seeing their delighted reactions.

"That's really the payoff for me -- hearing the squeals and the hollers out of the kids," he said.

"In one of the earlier classes, one of the kids said something about ‘magic.' This isn't magic. This is science," Woodward said.

"I can do a lot of things that look like magic, but one of the things I like to say is, hey, this is what's actually going on. There's nothing magical about this. This is science. This is the way this world is made."