College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Middle-Schoolers Learn About Light Sabers and Forensic Chemistry at UM

Students from Pontotoc Middle School help Murrell Godfrey (right), director of the forensic chemistry program at the University of Mississippi, make ice cream using liquid nitrogen. UM photo by Kevin Bain.

Middle school students from Pontotoc chose not to go to “the dark side” during a daylong visit to the University of Mississippi this week, but they did learn how improbable light sabers are as weapons.

It was all part of activities designed to introduce the 76 students from the Pontotoc Middle School science club to careers in the sciences. Darth Vader was only part of the discussion, said

Murrell Godfrey, associate professor and director of UM’s forensic chemistry program.“It’s all about exposing these kids to the fun side of science,” said Godfrey, who joined the group of fifth- and sixth-graders as they watched a demonstration on how laser beams really work. “There is a shortage of scientists in the USA, and we know if we can get them exposed at a young age, then we can keep them involved.”

The students spent the morning touring the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry before having lunch in the Grove, complete with ice cream frozen on the spot using liquid nitrogen. The afternoon included tours and demonstrations in the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Godfrey, who coordinated the visit with the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, said the goal is to get students excited about science and to give them an “opportunity to see what real-world science is like.”

Godfrey and NOBCChE also used the visit to expose the students to the world of forensic chemistry, which involves the scientific analysis of evidence in crime scene investigations. The students even got to participate in some hands-on activities. The university’s forensic chemistry program is one of only two nationally accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Gary Brown, NOBCChE national student representative, said he considered the visit to be “pretty successful.”

“Across the board, you see a decline in people going into the sciences,” said Brown, a doctoral candidate in chemistry from New Orleans. “We’re trying to inspire youth, especially low-income individuals and minorities, to think about how science impacts their everyday lives. On top of that, we simply want to expose them early and hopefully leave a lasting impression so that they will one day pursue this awesome degree in chemistry.”

John Chaz “CJ” Keith, a 12-year-old from Pontotoc, said he enjoyed the demonstrations and hopes to come back soon.

“It was pretty cool learning about how you can use tree bark to discover the condition of the environment 10 years or even 50 years ago,” said Keith, son of Gerald and Christina Keith of Pontotoc.

Jaryd Paige, the 12-year-old son of Patrick and Tonya Adams of Pontotoc and Terry Paige of Tupelo, agreed.

“The laser beam demonstration was great, too,” Paige said. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but the light show was cool.”

Murray Collum, teacher and science club adviser, said the activities were a total success.

“They’re having a great learning experience and that’s so important when educating teens,” Collum said. “The faculty and staff here made it their goal to find ways to interest students in science. And I appreciate their efforts to help our students see a connection between their lives and the joy of science.”

For more information on the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry or the forensic chemistry program at Ole Miss, visit https://www.olemiss.edu/depts/chemistry/. For more information on the Department of Physics and Astronomy, go to https://www.olemiss.edu/depts/physics_and_astronomy/.