Every day, somewhere on the Sudbury campus, students are engaging in scientific pursuits. In the last couple of days this has included cooking in the kitchen, making homes for wooly bear caterpillars, tending the garden, pulling out a magnifying glass to get a closer look at “diamonds” discovered in an old broken brick (“No, that’s QUARTZ!”…“No, it’s a diamond!”), finding a baby turtle in the field, pouring over books about sharks and dinosaurs in the library, mining for metals and forging tools on the video game Minecraft, and a multitude of other activities. In an open school with 57 students, 6 staff, over a dozen rooms and 67 acres of land, we can’t help but bump into science at every turn.
Yesterday, several of our 11-year-old boys came up to me and asked for some help using an old chemistry lab set they brought from home. The set had sat dusty in a corner of their house for years and they’d never opened it. I’m not sure what inspired them to pull it out, but their excitement was palpable. It was a beautiful sunny, warm fall day and we found a quiet space outside to set up. We cleaned the dust and debris off of the lab equipment and started flipping through the instructional booklet.
Our various containers of chemicals sat before us. We pawed through them, and the boys read the foreign-sounding names out loud. “Phenolphthalein Solution”, “Ferric Ammonium Sulfate”, “Sodium Carbonate.” Their curiosity was contagious.
To investigate, one student opened one of the small containers and took a whiff. “Huggakpluhh!” he spluttered. We discussed “wafting” to safely smell something in a Chemistry Lab, and together we poured over the precautions for the various chemicals. Of course, the most exciting chemicals were those with the most precautions. “May cause skin irritation. If contacting skin, rinse with large amounts of water.” “Whoah!” the boys said, and we pulled on our plastic gloves. The rules and dangers of the lab added to the intrigue and excitement of our play, and the boys handled the chemicals with a deep concentration and serious caution appropriate for a lab setting.
Our first experiment: to create a polymer from two solutions. We carefully prepared our space, mixed the solutions, and made a gelatinous, yellowish-gray solid they affectionately named “booger”.
I’ve never had the chance to just play in a chemistry lab the way these boys were. Unfortunately, before I could discover chemistry for myself, chemistry was thrust upon me in a compulsory science class in my public middle school. Later on in college I chose to take several years of chemistry as a part of my pre-med requirements. Finally, I gained some satisfaction from these classes because I was choosing to take these courses to reach an end goal I had freely set for myself. Still, the lab time was intensely structured and high pressure, with no time to sit back and wonder after a stunning chemical transformation or to form independent questions during the course of an experiment. Instead I was working hard to reach the “correct,” predetermined answers to someone else’s questions.
As the boys and I sat huddled around the lab equipment on the Sudbury grounds, I relished the opportunity to rediscover chemistry through their eyes, and chemistry that morning was more fascinating than ever before. Questions flooded in: “What’s Sodium Carbonate?” was followed by a description of molecular structure, which spurred the question, “Well how do they get the oxygen in there?” leading to several interesting guesses and a brief description of bonding. But the real focus was on the action—“How did those two clear liquids just make a purple precipitate?!”
Other students were quickly gathering around, fascinated. People were asking questions and excitedly pointing to the different parts of the lab kit. The boys began to exercise some crowd control. They were willing to have bystanders but they required silence. This chemistry play was a serious, concentrated pursuit. After a few minutes many of the spectators moved on, but one girl stayed, watching intently as the boys pipetted solution into the cells in the reaction plate.
Taking in the scene, I noticed how the creativity, enthusiasm, focus, and determination I see these boys practice daily in role-playing games transferred seamlessly to the chemistry lab, and how beautifully the often rigid lines of “work” and “play” are erased by a day at Sudbury.