Nurturing Youth: The Chem Club counsels kids

It’s 3:00 p.m. and they meet at the storage room at the third floor of the science building, bubbling with potential energy. It’s a mixture of students from all ages and walks of life and more backgrounds than a movie set. Together, the disparate elements combine into a stable solution greater than the sum of their individual parts, a solution out to achieve something good, both for the community and for themselves. It’s a solution known as the Chemistry Club here at Santa Monica College.

"When I took on Chem Club we were just a student club, but shortly after starting to work with them, we decided to apply for a charter to be a student chapter of the American Chemical Society,” says Professor Jennifer Shieh, an Associate Faculty member for Chemistry here at SMC and advisor to the club. “We got that in 2012, and it was in developing a constitution that we came up with our three goals of outreach, professional development and promoting chemistry."

Today, the Chemistry Club is fulfilling their first mission–outreach. The assembled members head out from SMC’s main campus down 16th St., carrying supplies to Will Rogers Elementary, ready to teach the kids enrolled in the Childcare, Recreation, Enrichment, and Sports Together (or CREST) after school program. Today’s lesson–density.

"How density works is if you have two objects of the same size and one has more stuff in it, it will be heavier, and have more density," says Timur Katsnelson to the assembled class of students ranging from first grade to fifth grade.

Katsnelson, a second year student at SMC majoring in Neuroscience, along with Mali Nali, a first year student at SMC majoring in Chemical Engineering (and at 17, the youngest of the group) go on to lead the children through a Halloween-themed lesson - the kids guess at the density of objects and pin paper cutouts to a poster-board pumpkin cauldron. The children grasp the concept quickly.

“This is my first time doing this, so I didn't know how to feel about this,” says Katsnelson. “So I'm really glad that the kids love it. I mean, they're really excited about it as you can see.”

It’s true. The kids are quickly chattering with excitement and curiosity as the next part of the lesson begins. Chemistry Club members Justin Kim, Samantha Purucker, Natasha Kirstie, Azra Azvar and Reham Alreayes hand out mason jars and liquids of differing density – molasses, honey, and cooking oil. The jars are filled with each liquid then topped off with a ping pong ball painted like an eyeball, a little witch’s brew each child takes home with them.

"Which one do you think has more density?" asks Amir Mirzae, a second year SMC student determined to transfer to UCLA’s Biochemistry program.

"The oil!" shouts one student once the jars have been filled.

"Actually, the one that has more density is the one that has less volume for the same mass,” says Mirzae, patiently ensuring the lesson takes root. He says later that he enjoys this aspect of Chem Club immensely, “I love kids to be honest. If there is any event that is involving kids I would be more than happy to go there."

Outreach like this is a large part of the reason that SMC’s Chemistry Club has been recognized nationally by the American Chemical Society’s Society Committee on Education. Professor Shieh says, “I'm really excited because we were just recently notified that we’re getting an award of outstanding recognition." It’s an award they’ll have to travel to San Diego to receive in March, and one not even members of their counterparts at UCLA can claim.

After two hours teaching two classes of rambunctious children the basic properties of density with smelly, gooey cooking products and fake eyeballs, the Chemistry Club team packs up to leave, sticky and sweaty from the cramped classroom. They’re happy and tired, but proud to have played a part in opening young minds.

"[Getting older] we lose a lot of creativity and the ability to ask questions without fear", says Katsnelson about the experience, “Seeing these kids, it reinforces the fact that it's a great thing to ask questions."

The Chemistry Club meets every Tuesday in Science room 155 11:30 to 12:30. The Chemistry Club is holding a fundraiser Friday, November 13th, at The Veggie Grill on Wilshire and 20th from 5 to 10 p.m.