Students at King Middle School study plant molecules at “Family Science Night” on Oct. 18. Photo: Alex Madonik
Students at King Middle School study plant molecules at “Family Science Night” on Oct. 18. Photo: Alex Madonik

By Alex Madonik and Jeanne Pimentel 

National Chemistry Week is happening right now — it runs from October 21 to October 27 — and last Thursday, the California Local Section of the American Chemical Society held a kickoff event, “Family Science Night” at King Middle School in Berkeley. Explosive demonstrations and rock music were all part and parcel of the event.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of National Chemistry Week (NCW), the brainchild of UC Berkeley Professor George Pimentel. In 1987, when he was the President of the American Chemical Society, he saw the need to convey to the public the vital role that chemistry plays in our lives. He wanted to combat the prevalent negative view of chemicals and promote the basic understanding needed to make wise decisions on issues related to science. The Lawrence Hall of Science helped launch NCW that year, inviting busloads of schoolchildren to join the public in discovering the fun of doing chemistry while learning about its importance to society.

Ever since then, the many local sections of the American Chemical Society have mounted imaginative outreach events during NCW, directed especially at students who are ready to get excited about chemistry, understand its potential, and embark on a careers science — not to mention influencing their parents and peers to pursue good practices such as recycling.

Each year has a different theme, from energy to the weather, and this year’s is “Nanotechnology — The Smallest BIG Idea in Science.”

At the King Middle School auditorium on Thursday evening, hundreds of students and their families heard the official proclamation of National Chemistry Week, issued earlier in the week by the City of Berkeley. Then, Dr. Bryan Balazs of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, made “elephant’s toothpaste,” ignited a rocket powered by oxygen and plastic, and set off several colorful explosions. Later, the high-decibel “Scientific Jam” band returned to the stage with lyrics straight from their day jobs as middle school science teachers.

Th City of Berkeley Proclamation marking National Chemistry week was made at its City Council meeting on Oct. 16

Skipping from classroom to classroom, visitors tried their hands at making “slime” and “ancient ink,” tasted liquid nitrogen ice cream, and tested the identity of various plastics by melting them with a heat gun or floating them on different liquids.  In keeping with the nanoscience theme, they made paper models of the 60-carbon cluster whose structure is identical to a soccer ball. Its 1984 discoverers named it BuckminsterFullerene after the famous architect, but informally these clusters are known as “buckyballs.”  At every station, eager students learned the thrill of discovery for themselves. Their infectious enthusiasm was shared by the staff, including a longtime custodian, who put down his broom to watch the demonstrations and activities.

King Middle School’s science department chair Akemi Hamai worked with ACS NCW coordinator Alex Madonik to plan this event. Activities were conducted by numerous volunteers including Dr. Martin Mulvihill and students from the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry (members of Alpha Chi Sigma and Iota Sigma Pi), and by Dr. Margareta Sequin and her students from San Francisco State University, as well as a dozen industrial chemists from local companies.

On leaving, one student summed it up this way: “Hey, chemistry is cool!”

Other science-related events will take place throughout the Bay Area during National Chemistry Week, including those listed below:

California Local Section Meeting, American Chemical Society, Oct. 25, 2012
UC Berkeley/BP Energy Biosciences Institute – Tour and Lecture
Topic: The EBI: A Unique Partnership for Catalyzing Activities in Renewable Fuels Research
Speaker: Dr. Susan Jenkins, EBI Managing director
Tour 5 PM, Dinner and Lecture: 7 PM
Reservations at (510-351-9922)

National Chemistry Week Fun for Kids – Saturday, Oct. 27. 10am-1pm. FREE.
Win prizes and have fun in the slime lab with hands-on chemistry.
King Library, 150 E. San Fernando St., San Jose.
For more details contact: Abby Kennedy (

Science Cafe – Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, 6:30 p.m.
Co-Sponsored by the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation and the Women Chemists Committee of the California Section, American Chemical Society
STEM CELLS: Can Science overcome disease? or (925) 283-6513 x.101

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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