Chemistry Sleuths Class of 2011
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Curious kids find the right chemistry

Chemistry Sleuths
Photos courtesy of Lulu Stelck

UI science camp explores the finer points of forensics

By Joel Mills
Reprinted with permission from the Lewiston Tribune.

MOSCOW - Curtis Bohlscheid plays soccer, basketball and football, and will hit several sports camps this summer.

But his favorite summer camp has nothing to do with athletics and everything to do with chemistry.

"It's more fun, and I have a greater interest in chemistry than sports," Bohlscheid said as he tested the melting point of the organic compound benzoin at the week-long Chemistry Sleuth Idaho camp at the University of Idaho. "I want to be a biochemist when I grow up."

The 10-year-old Pullman resident said his interest in science is probably genetic, since his father Jeffri Bohlscheid is a food scientist at the UI. And that interest runs so deep he spends his spare time reading his dad's biochemistry textbook.

"I got really interested in the water section," he said.

Chemistry Sleuth founder and UI chemistry instructor Dan Stelck said the camp's focus on forensics aims to hook kids on science at an early age with experiments that relate to their own interests.

One camper, Paige Pence of Post Falls, attested to that.

"I like CSI (crime scene investigation) shows," Pence said. "I thought they were cool, and my mom saw this camp and signed me up."

Pence is the one camper of seven from out of the area. Her parents Don and Deb Pence sent her to stay with grandparents Arlene and Ned Pence of Moscow for the week. The other campers are from Pullman and Moscow.

Stelck said that like other academic summer camps, Chemistry Sleuth exposes kids to a university campus. And with that experience under their belts, he fully expects these same campers to become part of the university's next generation of science majors.

The camp also gives the kids a chance to use expensive scientific equipment their school districts can't afford, like refractive index spectrometers that run about $4,000 each. The devices analyze how light bends to identify different compounds.

The camp also utilizes handheld, touch-screen computers that accept a variety of probes and analyze data numerically and graphically. Stelck said the campers quickly become adept at using the devices.

"I call them my touch-screen technology kids," Stelck said. "They know how to use it better than I do."

The camp will culminate Friday when Stelck sets up a mock "crime scene," and the campers analyze different pieces of evidence made of the materials they have studied.

While most of the week's experiments focus on the different materials that might be found at a crime scene, Stelck gives frequent breaks for fun, dynamic demonstrations of the power of chemistry. Wednesday he showed the campers what happens when something very hot is mixed with something very cold.

He poured liquid nitrogen, which boils at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit, into a foam container. A camper then poured in boiling-hot water, with a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ensuing reaction didn't only come from the container, but from the campers who exclaimed "ooh" and "cool" as a dense white cloud of water vapor shot up, then fell to the floor and dissipated.

That kind of reaction is what spurred Karson Jensen's interest in chemistry.

"I like explosions and stuff," the 10-year-old Moscow girl said, noting she signed up for the camp so she could be ahead of her classmates when they study chemistry next year.

And with her birthday coming up next month, Jensen said she will soon let her parents Nick Jensen and Kelly Schiavoni know what she wants for a present: a chemistry set.