In his red “Science is Fun!” t-shirt, safety goggles, and jeans, Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri looks more like an over-zealous college student than an internationally acclaimed chemistry scholar. But, as he played with fire and chemicals in Francis Auditorium, it became clear why he was chosen to be this year’s Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Doenges Visiting Artist/Scholar.

During his visit to the college, the self-described “master of chemical demonstrations” visited several chemistry classes and gave a lecture about the importance of communication and science to MBC faculty, staff, and students on October 21. But on the previous day, MBC opened its doors to area elementary and high school students, giving them the opportunity to experience Shakhashiri’s famous “Science is Fun!” presentation.

Jeanna Konizer, a chemistry teacher at Waynesboro High School, first experienced a Shakhashiri lecture at a teaching conference at Longwood University. “This is an amazing opportunity that the college is opening up to us,” she said. “Shakhashiri is the guy in chemistry.”

Well, “the guy in chemistry” certainly made an impression on faculty and staff at Mary Baldwin.

“He’s pretty much the god of chemistry demonstrations,” joked Dr. Karl Zachary, assistant professor of chemistry, who championed the efforts to bring Shakhashiri to campus.

While teaching at the University of Illinois, Shakhashiri was introduced to the chemistry Christmas lecture, a concept first developed more than 100 years ago by the Englishman, Michael Faraday. Shakhashiri decided to bring the tradition with him when he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a way to recap the fall semester and preview the spring, he began giving a demonstration-filled lecture on the last day of class.

When word got out that he was giving a pretty interesting lecture, people got excited. Eventually, Shakhashiri was entertaining huge crowds with four “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakhashiri” lectures on the first weekend of December. His local PBS station soon began taping and broadcasting his lectures all over the country.

In his lectures, Shakhashiri turns balloons into balls of fire, creates yellow crystals from clear liquids, and concocts an intriguing mixture that continually changes from yellowish-orange to dark blue. But according to Shakhashiri, while the science demonstrations engage the audience, they alone are not enough to teach them. He believes that the students have to be in charge of their own learning, in a more active way than just watching someone pour chemicals into a cup or reading PowerPoint slides.

Instead, he uses his lectures to stress the importance of observation and communication, not only in science, but also in life. That’s why, with each experiment, Shakhashiri asks the students to think about what is happening and to describe what they see, as if they are radio announcers. By doing so, he assures them, they will learn how to effectively express themselves to others.

“Displaying chemistry and presenting it as it is, is exciting,” Shakhashiri said. “It is conducive to learning, and that’s why I think that demonstrations and experiments have a place in the chemistry curriculum.”

Shakhashiri draws from his own experiences as a student when designing his lectures. “I had some very good teachers and some not so good teachers,” he said. “I learned from the good teachers how to communicate and how to think about what’s being taught. From the not-so-good teachers, I said to myself, ‘Hmm, there are better ways to do this and maybe, someday, if I get to be a teacher, then I can do it better.’”

A true teacher, Shakhashiri loves to be with students who are engaged in the learning process and actively participating in what’s going on.

“I thought he was amazing,” said Jake Kanczuzewski, a senior at Waynesboro High School. “He took a sometimes boring subject like chemistry and made it come alive through his presentation and experimentation.”

Jason Zwacker, an 11th grader at Waynesboro thought that Shakhashiri made science more interesting in his presentation. “I didn’t even know that was possible, since I already love science,” he said.

Shakhashiri believes that education is the key to success in every walk of life. To him, a child, or adult for that matter, can’t have a successful education unless he or she participates in and enjoys the learning process. But, he is also aware that many students are apprehensive about science, believing that the subject is too hard. That is why, as a final remark in his presentation, he asked the students to remember one final thing, “Science is fun!”

By Melissa Jones
The CUPOLA Staff
Mary Baldwin College