Posted by: Carl Blesch | April 30, 2011

Yuck! Messy play teaches lessons about chemistry

Chemistry student Stephen Zieminski, left, helps young visitors get their hands full of glop

Ask this young Rutgers Day visitor what he knows about non-Newtonian fluids, and he’s likely to … ignore you. After all, he’s having too much fun playing in this non-Newtonian fluid. It’s a fancy name for a substance that is liquid under ordinary conditions, but squeeze or press it, and it turns into a solid. In this case, a handful of glop.

Tending to the wading pool full of this water and cornstarch mix is undergraduate chemistry student Stephen Zieminski, who is quick to give a technical explanation about what’s going on. “Cornstarch is a polymeric sugar, with lots of weak interactions between molecules,” he says. But the kids he oversees pay no heed, grabbing more and more batches of glop.

Chemistry professor John Taylor is more philosophical. “Things aren’t exactly what they seem,” he said. “It prompts you to ask questions about the nature of matter, and that’s what chemistry is all about.” If that’s the case, the kids who got their hands messy today may be on their way to becoming the curious chemists of tomorrow.


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