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Three decades of UF science event inspire creativity for young chemists, teachers

Published: May 15th, 2012

Category: Spotlights

UF Chemistry Demo

Derek Cohen and Rob Freedy gripped the plastic handles of their respective “grippers,” fiercely starring each other down. They would pull and pull until they couldn’t. It was a tug of war neither would win.

“What’s the matter?” said retired University of Florida chemistry professor Martin Vala. “I thought you were big, strong guys and could do it.”

Cohen and Freedy, students at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, would soon learn they were human pawns in Vala’s demonstration. In front of more than 30 secondary-school students, the professor explained the vacuum effect, first described by German scientist Otto von Guericke in the 17th century.

Von Guericke pumped out the air of large cooper hemispheres sealing them. He then tied 30 horses—15 on each side of the hemispheres— to show that even horse power couldn’t pull apart what atmospheric pressure was holding together.

Cohen and Freedy didn’t know that their “grippers” had a lever that forced the air out from between their rubber faceplates.

This was CHEMATHON, a day-long annual chemistry event in April sponsored by the UF Chemistry Department, the UF Center for Catalysis, and the Florida Section of the American Chemical Society.

“We decided years ago that we were going to have a chemistry event, and we’re going to make it fun,” said Gardiner Myers, also a retired UF chemistry professor who started CHEMATHON in 1981.

For 30 years, thousands of high school students from across Florida have participated in  the spirited competition where they test their chemistry aptitude, compete in a quiz bowl and watch a demonstration show of various scientific principles. Vala was the showman extraordinaire.

“AHHHH!” the audience released a collective scream, as he ignited mixed hydrogen and oxygen gases in test tubes that rattled off booms like a series of gunshots.

Stephen Dolbier and Kevin Huang, both students at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, scored in the top tier of the CHEMATHON exam and received plaques. They seemed unfazed by their success and more enthralled by the show and the memories it conjured.

“Remember that sodium thing we blew up?” Huang said to Dolbier, who recalled an experiment with hydrogen gas during a Buchholz school activity.

Ultimately, the event organizers wanted participants to also learn about careers in chemistry. Students toured labs and spoke with UF graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“There are other, worthwhile things to do in life than go to medical school. That’s what I tell my students,” Myers said.

Precocious high school chemists aren’t the only ones to benefit from CHEMATHON.  Carol Hart, a teacher at St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park, summed up the experience for teacher-chaperones who want to improve their lesson plans: “There hasn’t been a year that I’ve come that I haven’t been inspired to do something.”

CHEMATHON is one of several UF initiatives that encourage high school enrichment in the sciences.  To learn more about summer opportunities in STEM fields, visit the Center for Precollegiate Education and Training at

Writer:  Claudia Adrien

Photo: UF Photography

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