Lawrence High School chemistry club members Jordan Lilly, Stephanie Luo, Jean Steele and Laasyari Vaddepali present during Chemistry Rocks! at Princeton University.

The Earth is extremely complicated, consisting of different layers, reactions, and elements, and students from Lawrence High School recently made it their mission to teach planetary science to students in a unique and engaging way.

Last month, the LHS Chemistry Club exhibited at the Princeton University Fricke Chemistry Lab as part of the 2017 National Chemistry Week “Chemistry Rocks!” Activities Night. As part of this year’s theme, Chemistry…It Rocks! Geochemistry, the LHS Chemistry Club created a maze involving the various different layers of the earth with mini-activities at each station to teach over 650 children and parents about how the earth works.

National Chemistry Week is organized by the Princeton section of the American Chemical Society, and various high schools from the region, such as Lawrence, are invited to participate. This year, Lawrence’s exhibit included over 50 student volunteers who helped develop the earth maze and explain it to the attendees. As club co-president and senior Hakim Hachicha explains, the attendees consisted mainly of “children (between 5 and 11). The whole event is meant to expose students to new concepts.” Hachicha added that he has watched Lawrence grow in the past few years into having a major role at the event.

The idea for the earth maze initially came from junior Neil Chopra. As co-president and senior Eliza Wirkijowski explained, the plan “had some faults and strengths, so we decided to rework it and make it run as well as possible by adding some stations to it.”

Wirkijowski also explained the setup of the maze, which involved using a 800 square foot space to showcase information regarding the various layers of the earth on the walls. “Students would enter, and the first wall would be the crust. The students would then walk into the mantle, and then the core. For each different section of the maze, there were different stations with activities. One activity was a “Rock Buffet,” where we made examples of different rocks, but we used food and (different types of) candy to make it more simplified,” she said.

Syed Ali Haider Rizvi, a junior at LHS, was in charge of the various activities relating to the crust. “We took a UV light and displayed it on the rocks with different colors, and we let the kids see what effect this had on the rock. Along with that, we had “Cake-Earth Surgery,” where we used a cake to explain the different layers of the earth. We also displayed different densities of liquids in a glass tube,” Rizvi said.

‘Rocks can be boring, but you can always make it a little more interesting for the kids to be immersed and to enjoy it.’

“The whole idea with the maze was to create a very immersive experience for the kids. Where this event was hosted, it was kind of a very open thing, and we wanted to tap into the creativity of the children of the event to get them excited about STEM. We wanted to develop their creativity and help them look at a different side of things. We decided to do that with the maze, because they were immersed with science all around them,” Hachica said.

“Rocks can be boring, but you can always make it a little more interesting for the kids to be immersed and to enjoy it,” Wirkijowski added.

In organizing the event, the students had to overcome many design, technical, and material challenges. After discovering the theme, the club leaders had to find some way to make it an enjoyable learning experience.

“The greatest problem we had was trying to find something interesting for the theme of rocks. This year, there weren’t as many schools exhibiting as usual because they were all struggling to come up with something creative enough that they could execute. Coming up with something that was interesting and engaging, that wasn’t too much work and would be efficient, was probably the greatest obstacle,” Wirkijowski said.

The students also had to explore different materials to use to display the information. “We originally tried to make walls, but of course we realized that wasn’t possible, so we bought a long stretch of plastic table cloth and we cut to length. We would write different facts on them, what part of the crust they were on, and then we would pin them up on these boards that Princeton had provided us with,” she added.

Furthermore, in the week before the event, the club leaders were forced to troubleshoot. “We had our plan set up right before, but last minute we were told that we weren’t allowed to do it” because of safety and blocking hazards. “So I quickly tried to troubleshoot this and figure out a solution. We figured out to use different things to create a maze without blocking anything. It ended up being more of a snake than a maze, but it was still pretty efficient in terms of design,” she continued.

To helped solve many of these obstacles, the university connected the club with Don Martocello, a geology major and senior at Princeton. Martocello discussed with various members of the club over Skype about their ideas and how they could best present them in the exhibition setting. “We bounced our ideas off him and asked for suggestions and improvements. For example, originally we just had the mantle and the layer, but then he corrected us and said that we should include upper and lower mantle,” said senior Ashwin Baskaran. Hachica added that Martocello helped simplify their ideas into a way that would be efficient and enjoyable for teaching kids.

Chemistry Club advisor and LHS chemistry teacher Matthew Davis believed that the interactions with the Princeton student were a great learning experience for some of the younger club members. “The upperclassmen insisted that the underclassmen ask the questions to Don. The underclassmen were nervous even to talk to him. They say that confidence is the result of successful experience, so I watched them grow in confidence, these young sophomores, and the upperclassmen as well. This really allowed them to integrate what they learned from the Princeton student into their projects,” Davis said.

On the day of the event, around 50 LHS students came out to volunteer in the exhibit. Each of the three hands-on activities required half a dozen kids, and students were also tasked with explaining the information and graphics on the wall, as well as leading groups of children and parents throughout the maze.

As junior Rhea Pathak explained, the experience of the exhibit taught the club members a lot about adaptability. “We talked before about our exhibit’s original plan, we had all the details figured out and we were really excited for it, but we realized we had to change it because of safety precautions and Princeton’s rules, so we had to work around that in a short time frame,” she said.

During day of the event itself, Pathak noticed that “after about 20 minutes, people really got into the flow of things. Even if we’re running out of materials, people kept (improvising). Adaptability and flexibility are some things that the entire club definitely learned.”

While helping younger children learn and have fun, the club members also enjoyed the experience.

“One of my favorite moments was looking at the children and how happy they were learning new stuff. We had a lot of volunteers teaching in a fun way by asking questions and giving chocolates when children got the answer right. Looking at the smiles of the children and what they learned was one of the favorite things for me, personally. I think it really intrigued them into learning more about STEM,” Rizvi said.

For Rizvi and the rest of the club, this exhibit was not only important for science; it was also a indicator of how much can change in such a short time. Rizvi was living in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit the coast, and he was able to escape and come to Lawrence. “He got here in September on the second day of school, and two months later he’s helping me run Chemistry Club. His story is amazing because it was remarkable that he was able to escape flood-riddled Houston to come here,” Davis said.

It’s amazing how you can go to one school from one side of the country to another school on the other side and be welcomed and contribute so meaningfully,” he added.

Looking ahead, the Chemistry Club hopes to hold more community events, and interact with younger students throughout New Jersey. They are exploring ideas of taking their earth maze to nearby elementary schools, and even creating fun videos exploring science theories and experiments.

Regardless of the form, Hachicha is proud that the club is “known for creating a good experience. Everytime kids participate, they always leave with a smile on their face, and I think that’s so amazing.”

Through these future events, the members and leaders of Chemistry Club look to continue spreading excitement about chemistry amongst students as they each believe studying the subject is vital.

Wirkijowski discussed the various applications of chemistry. “Chemistry is such a broad subject that can be applied to different things. Certain aspects of chemistry can be seen all over, so (knowing chemistry) helps make sense of our surroundings.” Pathak added that the accessibility of information regarding chemistry should make it even more compelling to learn.

Hachicha and Baskaran both mentioned that understanding chemistry helps students respect the earth more. “If you really understand the magnificence of the earth, I think (students) will understand how important it is to keep our planet healthy,” Baskaran said.