From 'Chemistry is phun' to the 'chemistry magic show' How the Department of Chemistry's hit community outreach event was born

By Molly Pendergast

For kids young and old in Ottawa, Carleton University's Chemistry Magic Show has been a popular and accessible attraction since 2008. As a staple outreach event, the free magic shows use demonstrations to illustrate to the public how chemistry is not only fun and exciting, but far more prevalent, important and understandable than many people realize. From billowing smoke to big bangs (a crowd favourite), each demonstration has a simple chemical explanation.

Billowing smoke and big bangs at the Chemistry Magic Show.

When Associate Professor Jeff Manthorpe joined Carleton’s Department of Chemistry in 2006, he brought forward the idea of a community outreach show to his colleagues. They were extremely supportive from the very beginning, offering to share any extra materials they had on hand and their ideas about potential show demonstrations. Thus, the Chemistry Magic Show was born.

At that time, the department hadn’t hosted a large, open-house event with any regularity for many years. However, there had been a similar initiative at Carleton that started in the 1960’s; Don Wiles, now Professor Emeritus in the department, had done some outreach shows under the title ‘Chemistry is pHun.’

“Don actually became a really great resource for ideas,” says Manthorpe. “It’s been neat to see how the show brought together the different generations of faculty within the department. It’s definitely been a unifying thing.”

Over a Decade of Growth

At its core, the Chemistry Magic Show aims to provide a visible platform for the scientific discipline. “Chemistry is not necessarily the most accessible science. It falls into a middle ground,” explains Manthorpe. “We wanted to change that—we wanted to show the public how chemistry connects to their everyday lives, and how it impacts them.”

The show has undergone many changes over the course of more than ten years. With a growing audience, the organizers had to adapt to accommodate the demand: they increased the number of performances per day from two to three, they relocated the show to a larger auditorium in Richcraft Hall, they enlisted a TV camera crew to broadcast the show in overflow rooms and on local television and they increased the number of Chemistry Magic Show events held each year. In turn, a large group of enthusiastic and dedicated chemists and student volunteers have become a crucial part of the show.

In an effort to promote hands-on participation, activity rooms were added to the show, allowing kids to work with student volunteers on actual demonstrations—like making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

“It’s a great way for students to take the knowledge that they’ve acquired [at Carleton] and learn to explain the fundamental scientific principles behind what they’re showing somebody, or what somebody is doing with their own hands,” says Manthorpe.

A Show to Remember

A special Chemistry Magic Show event was held in January 2019 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the periodic table. Over 1,800 audience members from the community showed up throughout the day to check out the festivities—a new record.

With the audience members came a substantial number of donations. Since its inception, the show has been supporting the Ottawa Food Bank by encouraging audience members to make a cash or non-perishable food donation. The partnership between the show and the food bank allows organizers to leverage the audience’s interest in paying it forward.

This year, the show brought in an impressive $1,829.15—over $800 more than the previous record, and the largest amount of money the show has ever raised for the food bank. 940 pounds of non-perishable items were donated as well.

Donations are extremely important to the show’s organizers. They recognize that food poverty and insecurity disproportionately impacts children—some of their main audience members.

“Food scarcity as a kid can have lifelong impacts. Long-term, lacking the right nutrition can cause cognitive issues. Short-term, it’s hard to learn when you’re hungry,” explains Manthorpe. “We saw the donations as a way to try and do something about that.”

In hopes of making a difference, all of the cash donations are directed to the Ottawa Food Bank programs that support Ottawa-area schools.

Families gather and learn at the outdoor Chemistry Magic show held in May 2019.

Reaching out and Inspiring Scientists of the Future

Natalie Mesnic is a chemistry lab coordinator and has spent years volunteering with the show. Engaging young children in science is important to the Carleton alumnus. “[Growing up], I wasn’t really encouraged to pursue science,” she explains.

During the January show, Mesnic experienced an unforgettable moment. At the end of the day, a little girl in a miniature lab coat and goggles approached her. The girl had gone to every single show that day. “She came up and told me ‘I want to be just like you when I grow up,’” says Mesnic. “I was holding back tears.”

“Those moments… are why we do this,” says Manthorpe. “The reality is, as time goes on and the world becomes a more technologically advanced place, people are going to need more and more scientific education and understanding. We need to inspire people to pursue this.”

Connect with the Faculty of Science:

Website: https://science.carleton.ca/ | Facebook: Carleton University Faculty of Science | Twitter: @CarletonScience

For more Carleton University community engagement news, including success stories and partnership opportunities, visit the Hub for Good!

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