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Gautier, MS, July 8, 2008

The Mississippi Press - Chemistry Camp Aims to Spark Interest in Science

By Ryan Wright
Staff Reporter

While many youths continue their summer plans to sit comatose in front of the television, a group of 25 are tucked away in a laboratory, mixing and testing chemicals.

Monday marked the start of the 17th year of chemistry camp, a program designed to spark an interest in science in young minds.

Two one-week camps are held each July at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Twenty-five students are divided into groups of five, each guided by one instructor, and study a different branch of chemistry each day.

On Monday, students created their own T-shirts and performed flame tests to identify elements. They held unknown substances in the flame of a Bunsen burner and observed the change in the color of the flame to determine which ions were burning.

In the final four days, they will study crystals and polymers, chemical reactions, acids and bases, and metals and alloys.

Experiments include making polyurethane foam, mixing chemicals to observe reactions, testing pH levels of household substances and copper-plating a piece of steel.

"A lot of the guys get excited with the fire and explosions," said Mary Dyle, one of the instructors.

Students get several souvenirs, as many experiments are "make-and-take," camp director Teresa Dixon said.

"It encourages them to take science classes in high school," she said. "When they're young, they have a natural curiosity to explore. We want them to see that chemistry is fun."

Each Thursday of the camp, the five groups compete in a quiz bowl with questions about the week's material. No need to study though, winners get a trophy, not grades.

"No grades, it's all fun," Dixon said.

And each Friday the students take a trip to First Chemical, a co-sponsor of the camp, along with the college, to meet the engineers and take a tour of the plant.

This year, students have come from Ocean Springs, Biloxi, St. Martin, Pascagoula, Vancleave and Moss Point, and at least one is home-schooled.

"They all have a great time with it," Dixon said. "We have students that come back multiple years because they've enjoyed it. We do the same thing every year, and we've had them come four years. They still like it."

One such veteran is Cole Montgomery. Even though the program is geared toward students who have completed seventh, eighth and ninth grades, this is Montgomery's fifth year in the program.

When spots were unfilled last year, organizers opened the camp to sixth- and 10th-graders, and Montgomery squeezed in. This year, he's volunteering his way through the door.

"They do the same thing every year, but everything changes at the same time," Montgomery said. "We'll do the same experiments, but we might use a different size cup, which will throw off the proportions ... I have something from each year, and you can tell the differences in each one. It's just fun to see."

Montgomery, who will be a senior at Moss Point High next year, said the camp furthered his interest in the field. Now he's considering a chemical engineering major in college. The camp keeps him "amped up for that."

Montgomery said he's unsure about his plans for next summer, but if he's in town with an open schedule, chemistry camp '09 can expect a sixth-year senior.

Reporter Ryan Wright can be reached at rwright@themississippipress.com or 228-934-1431.