Before he knew much about it, David Krebs, a student at Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pa., found chemistry intimidating. It wasn't until he started to study it that the subject became one of his favorites.
"It's not as scary as I thought it was going to be," Krebs said. "In fact, it's exciting — something is happening that you can't see, and there's always that mystery of what's next. You get to figure out why things happen."
Krebs was one of 19 students who travelled from as far away as California and Georgia to attend the inaugural Chemistry Camp at Bucknell University in July. Organized by Chemistry Lab Director Pat Martino, the half-week camp introduced rising high school seniors, juniors and sophomores to six major fields in chemistry as well as to careers where studying those fields could lead. Martino and others who brought the camp to life hoped that, like Krebs, the campers would discover something they love in the discipline.
Kayla South, a student from Stevens, Pa., found her passion in an experiment related to fragrances. South is interested in the application of chemistry in the perfume and cosmetics fields, and was excited to learn more about the science behind those products.
"We used ether and esters and added in alcohol and different acids, then we went around and tried to guess what different scents they made when we mixed them," she said.
The camp follows a path blazed by Bucknell's annual Engineering Camp, a summer experience for 7th- through 11th-graders that began in 2008 with just 26 students and now attracts close to 200 campers annually. In addition to Martino, seven chemistry department faculty members — Professors Karen Castle, Charles Clapp, Mike Krout, Will Kerber, Molly McGuire, David Rovnyak and Timothy Strein — volunteered time to make the summer learning experience a reality. They were assisted by Bucknell chemistry students on campus for summer research projects.
"It helps me in my work by forcing me to think about it at a more basic level," said William Frost '18, a chemistry and economics major doing research in Castle's lab this summer who led an experiment using light and color to identify chemicals. "It's also just fun."
Lab activities at the camp included such entertaining experiments as solving a murder mystery with chemistry and making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, but also included more academic pursuits utilizing the University's advanced instrumentation, such as its nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, a powerful magnetic imager for molecular analysis purchased with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
"I love using all these machines — just walking around the labs is neat," said Nate Burmas, who travelled from Davis, Calif., to attend the camp. "There are all these different technologies that my chemistry lab doesn't have. It's been really fun to see what they do."
As fun as the camp may have been, Rovnyak noted that it also aimed to play a critical role in supporting talented students who are interested in science, but may not pursue it. "Students who start off in science sometimes get derailed," Rovnyak said.
"This camp is hopefully addressing that, encouraging them that they are making the right decision. We want to make sure that they receive that encouragement to carry on in science."
Supporting students interested in science careers was at the forefront of Martino's mind in organizing the camp, which also included evening video conferences between students and professional chemists. Martino said he "was in the same boat in high school" — interested in chemistry but unsure of where a career in the field might take him.
"I never got a chance to talk to a chemist, or see all these different fields of chemistry," he said. "I took a chance and it ended up working out for me, but I don't think that should be a model to follow. We should be exposing high school students to science at this critical time — when they're deciding what to do for the next 40 years of their lives — by highlighting our fields and all the different options available to them."
Castle noted that the program is also an opportunity for Bucknell to show off its resources and provide a sample of a Bucknell education to an exceptional pool of students.
"This is the future of our program," Castle said. "It establishes a pathway. These students are going to go back and talk to their friends about Bucknell, and also make the point that science can be a lot of fun."
Jack Liu, who is also from Davis, Calif., said he's been impressed with the University's approach to education as he's experienced it so far.
"I found it interesting that we could actually interact with the professors, and get an introduction to every aspect of chemistry," Liu said. "The professors were very engaged with their students — not like some other universities that I've been to. I also like hanging out with the people who are here — it's been really fun."