Promoting Scientific Learning in an Informal Environment

Much like country music artist Barbara Mandrell famously sang in her hit single “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”, catalysts have been carrying out efficient chemical transformations at the molecular level before terms such as “green chemistry” and “nanotechnology” were cool. While many students and members of the general public may occasionally hear about catalysts, they may not understand the basic scientific concepts that govern the function of these materials, how they relate to green chemistry and nanotechnology, and how vital they are to economic prosperity. In fact, catalysts are so ubiquitous that nearly 90% of all chemical products are manufactured with the aid of these materials and up to 20% of the economic activities in industrialized countries directly depend on catalysis (Heveling, J.  J. Chem. Ed. 2012, 89, 1530.).

Our mission is to develop and deliver chemical engineering and catalysis-related outreach programming to stimulate interest in STEM fields among K-12 students with limited chemistry background and to raise public awareness for the importance of catalysis. These programs, which were designed in collaboration with Professors Rajamani Gounder and Fabio H. Ribeiro at Purdue University and can be tailored to emphasize scientific topics such as biology, medicine, energy, and the environment, include:

Short Presentations

Introductory concepts in chemistry and catalysis

  • What is a catalyst?
  • How do catalysts work?
  • Where do we find examples of catalysts in our daily lives?

Image: Examples of industrial catalyst pellets and monoliths


Visual displays of catalytic phenomena linked to presentations

  • Catalytic Combustion of Hydrogen
  • Hydrogen Peroxide Decomposition (“Elephant’s Toothpaste”)
  • Hydrogen and Ethanol Fuel Cells

Image: The concept of a catalyst: platinum-catalyzed combustion of hydrogen in oxygen (Cybulskis, V.J. et al. J. Chem. Ed. 2021, 98, 2036.)

Hands-on Activities

Examine how reactant concentration, temperature, and catalysts affect chemical reactions

  • Hydrogen Peroxide Decomposition

Explore concepts in electrochemistry and renewable energy; investigate effects of fuel concentration and temperature on energy production

  • Ethanol Fuel Cells

Image: Catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) as a central theme for K-12 outreach events (Cybulskis, V.J. et al.  J. Chem. Ed. 2016, 93, 1406. )

Students are able to connect the observations made during the demonstrations and hand-on activities to related concepts in life sciences, earth and space sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. The ability to engage in these laboratory activities in an informal environment enables K-12 students to experience how scientists and engineers plan and conduct real experiments as well as analyze and interpret data.