As a college freshman with strong math and science skills, Mindy Levine anticipated following in her father’s footsteps to become a physician. But after falling in love with organic chemistry and spending a summer doing research in a lab, she discovered chemistry was creative and transformative. “I get bored very easily, [but chemistry] was the first career that, by definition, was always going to be changing,” says Levine. A native New Yorker, Levine is now an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island.
Given Levine’s nearly electrifying passion for chemistry, it’s little wonder that she established a Chemistry Camp for middle school girls during April vacation. Held annually since 2012, the five-day (9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) free camp overflows with engaging, hands-on activities and field trips at URI’s main campus. Enrollment is capped at 40 girls, who need no chemistry expertise or knowledge to benefit from and enjoy the camp, which typically has a waiting list. Grants, including from URI, corporate and personal funding and, last year, a highly successful GoFundMe initiative, pay for supplies, research assistants’ salaries, field trips and food.
Why is the Chemistry Camp only for girls?
There’s a real gender disparity in people in hard science careers, such as chemistry. While equal numbers of very young boys and girls report being interested in science, girls’ interest drops significantly by the time they reach high school. The sciences can be hard; you can’t see a molecule or an atom, for example. When girls and women aren’t successful, they often blame themselves and stop pursuing a subject, while boys and men blame their failures on external factors, such as an unfair professor or unanticipated test.
I want even young children to look at the world in a scientific way and to question everything. Most people, especially young children, are curious, and I want to nurture that curiosity. While 3-year-olds constantly ask “why, why, why,” very few high school students do so.
Can you describe some typical Chemistry Camp experiments?
I was a little nervous the first year we did this forensics experiment, but the girls came in, saw the “victim” (a graduate student) on the ground, and said, “We’re the detectives; we’re on the case.” During a half-day session, they analyze various clues – examining and measuring footprints, applying color chromatography to the lipstick smear on the “victim’s” sleeve and testing the liquid in a nearby glass to determine if it was an acid or base – all in an effort to solve the “crime.”
They discover that boiling red cabbage yields purple juice and learn why adding lemon juice or vinegar turns it bright pink, but adding baking soda or cleaning spray turns it green. Creating “slime” and “elephant toothpaste” are two other fun experiments that motivate the girls to question everything.
Tell us about some of the Chemistry Camp field trips?
We tour the Narragansett Bay Commission’s water purification plant in Providence, where the girls test the water quality, including measuring pH levels and the amount of oxygen and nitrates, conduct other experiments and watch a video. At Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut – one of the most popular field trips – they dissect a squid and conduct different water quality tests. Even the girls who initially think the squid is disgusting and say “ick” end up loving this experiment.
You’ve talked positively about your professional mentors; do you see yourself as a mentor to these campers?
Yes ... I think it’s really hard for me to think of myself as a grownup. In my head, I’m still 25, and I remember being fresh out of graduate school, in graduate school, and in college. I hate moral preaching, but it appears to me that, if we’re successful at what we do, we have a moral imperative to help people in the next generation be successful, especially if we’re in a field where we’re members of an underrepresented group.
Many former campers come to our one-day program for high school girls, Sugar Science Day, held during the February break and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Some girls have returned to do summer research internships in our lab at URI. We hope some girls will return as mentors for this spring’s Chemistry Camp.
Do any of your colleagues at URI play a role in the Chemistry Camp?
I give full credit to my URI peers, several of them do experiments with us. Assistant Professor Matthew Kiesewetter leads some demonstrations, Associate Professor of Chemistry Jason Dwyer leads nanoscience demonstrations and Professor of Chemistry Brenton DeBoef builds rockets with the girls. They make small rockets – with sugar and potassium nitrate inside a hard laminate shell – and those rockets, along with Professor DeBoef’s 10- or 12-foot rocket, are launched, which is amazing!
I’ll be on sabbatical during the spring semester, so two of my graduate students who have great experience working with children, Dana DiScenza and Benjamin Cromwell, will lead this year’s Chemistry Camp.
Any final thoughts?
I’m not sure that most universities understand, reward and appreciate this kind of outreach and service to the general community, though the University of Rhode Island has gotten there. These kids are our future students; members of the public and legislators need to care about what we’re doing in science. These kinds of initiatives are as important to me as every other aspect of my job. ￼
For more information about Chemistry Camp, contact Mindy Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org