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Woman stands in home kitchen with blender and smiles at camera
Chemistry student Gracie Litsinger at home.

During a pandemic, kitchen chemistry mixes a recipe for Ut Prosim

By Travis Williams

For Gracie Litsinger, the recipe for teaching chemistry was a little creativity and a trip to her parents’ vegetable drawer.

“I created a pH [power of hydrogen] indicator out of a cabbage and warm water,” said the first-year chemistry major in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “It changes colors if you add an acid.”

Litsinger was one of 14 students in Professor Amanda Morris’ General Chemistry course to create and film child-friendly science projects in their kitchens to help Wonder Universe, a non-profit children’s museum in nearby Christiansburg, Virginia. Morris, the Patricia Caldwell Faculty Fellow, said the Kitchen Chemistry idea came to her as the university and other institutions across the state were adjusting their operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“During the extended spring break [for Virginia Tech], all I could think about was this idea of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), and how to serve the community and then how my students could do this remotely because they’re not here in Blacksburg,” Morris said in late May. Since then the project has been featured on TV news stations in Roanoke and Norfolk, Virginia.

A member of the board of directors for the museum, Morris contacted Wonder University Executive Director Sarah Nucci to share the video project concept.

“When we had to close [the physical location], we started talking about having online content … so, when Amanda said, do you want some videos, I was like, ‘Oh that would be great,’” Nucci said. “I really don’t know exactly what she asked her students to do, but I have to say, I’ve learned all kinds of cool things from these videos.”

Morris, who also created her own video, asked her students to film themselves doing an age-appropriate chemistry project using common household items and left the rest up to them. She offered the students extra credit if they also completed a short paper explaining how their experiment was connected to course work.

“I was amazed at what they did,” Morris said. “The quality of my video was nowhere near the students.”

Newhouse sits in kitchen with lab coat and goggles performing a chemistry demonstration
Ben Newhouse, was one of 14 students – including Gracie Litsinger, who created chemistry videos in their kitchens to help a Christiansburg-based nonprofit this semester.

Nucci said the content has helped the nonprofit stay connected with patrons during a time when they couldn’t visit the museum, located in the New River Valley Mall. As of press time, there were 15 videos total, which the museum shared once each week via its Facebook or YouTube pages. The videos and work of Morris and the students were featured on several Virginia television news broadcasts, including WTKR CBS Coastal Virginia and WFXR Fox Roanoke.

“It’s really helping kids still feel engaged and it’s a great opportunity to reach people without them having to worry about a dollar amount,” Nucci said.

Morris said she believed the project also helped her students better learn the content of her course.

“As educators, we always say, the first time you teach something, that’s when you really learn it,” she said. “I think taking them out of the context of being a student and putting them in the teacher role allowed them to connect with the content in a way they don’t through traditional course learning.”

Though the pandemic has created many trying situations, Morris believes the Kitchen Chemistry videos are an example of how it’s also provided opportunities for creativity and innovation to flourish.

“It kind of goes to show, that out of bad things, really great things can result,” Morris said.

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