June 4, 2014

Illuminating science: Eighth-graders learn how to make liquid glow

Eighth-graders Erlandris Johnson and Gloniesha Brown wearing protective goggles and plastic gloves slowly combined two liquid chemicals in a beaker as part of an experiment Wednesday at Lincoln Middle School.

When combined, the liquids glowed blue just for a few seconds. This reaction is what's known as chemiluminescence, which is the emission of light through a chemical change.

"I like to learn new experiments," Gloniesha said.

Two scientists Ashley Fischer and Monika Minner from Sigma-Aldrich Corporation in St. Louis conducted the experiment with the students as part of the company's science partners program.

Erlandris said working with the scientists was fun. "You learn new things and you get to do cool stuff," she said.

Prior to the students conducting the experiment, Fischer and Minner performed it for the entire class.

"Is everyone ready?" Minner asked before she combined the two liquid chemicals.

"Yes," the class responded in unison.

With the lights off, the combined liquid emitted a bright blue light.

A real world application of chemiluminescence happens when law enforcement officials use it to detect trace amounts of blood at crime scenes. Minner said they spray luminol in the air and it reacts with the iron in the blood and glows blue.

Minner discussed the difference between a chemical change and a physical change with the eighth-graders. "Physical changes are reversible," she explained. "Chemical changes are irreversible."

A simple example of a chemical change is bubbles, Minner said, and a physical change is an ice cube melting.

She also reviewed the structure of a simple atom with the students and discussed other forms of luminescence including bioluminescence, which is the emission of light by a living organism like a firefly.

"Luminescence is found everywhere," she said.

Minner encouraged the students to become scientists and be inquisitive.

"I never thought I would become a scientist but with determination, I was able to do it," she said. "If you don't ask questions, you can never move forward."

Both Fischer and Minner work with genes. Fischer's focus is gene editing, and Minner's focus is gene regulation.

Eighth-grader Aareon Rice said he's interested in a career in science and enjoyed working with the scientists.

"It was a good experience for me," he said.

Sigma-Aldrich, a life science company, plans to expand its science partners program in the future. It was piloted at two schools this year -- Lincoln Middle School and Brittany Woods Middle School in University City.

Over the next five years, the company wants to take the program global to 10 countries worldwide and reach more than 30,000 students.

"We're investing in the next generation of scientists, and we're doing it first right here in our own backyard," said Jeffrey Whitford, manager of global citizenship for Sigma-Aldrich. "These students are getting real-life science experience, and they're helping start a program that could have global implications."

Later this month, science and math teachers at East St. Louis District 189 will travel to Sigma-Aldrich for professional development and will conduct experiments with scientists in the lab environment.

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