ChemFriends Expo celebrates 20th Anniversary in 2017

From:   2016-10-25

Every fall, Solutions Through Science, a partnership of the chlorine and vinyl industries in Louisiana, participates in chemistry shows around the state in an effort to stimulate students’ interest in math and science.

Wherever students go, STS is there to connect them to chemistry and the everyday products we use that are made with chlorine or vinyl. Whether by showing students how chlorine is made or by pointing out the vast uses of chlo- rine and vinyl, students walk away with an understanding of how much the chemical industry impacts nearly every facet of their lives.

This coming year will mark the 20-year anniversary of ChemFriends, a unique and wildly successful event in Ascension Parish where students join in the fun of seeing science and chemistry come to life.

The event grew out of the Louisiana petrochemical industry’s long history of community involvement in local schools. For years, area facilities were asked to bring demonstrations into the schools to illustrate how lessons in the classroom are being used in the chemical plants.

Then, more than 20 years ago, a group of Ascension Parish facilities came up with a way for these presentations to all take place in one location. The result was ChemFriends – a local chemistry expo designed and geared toward area sixth graders with experiments tailored to their curriculum.

“We wanted to make the connection for students between the chemicals we manufacture in our facilities and everyday consumer products, from the glue used to make tape stick, the disinfectant soap we use to clean or some medicines in our cabinet,” said Judith Nordgren, chairman of Solutions Through Science and man- aging director of the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council.

Nordgren, who was one of the driving forces behind the ChemFriends idea, said it was the initial committee’s hope that developing students’ understanding and love for chemistry would eventually lead them to want to work in the industry. 

Richard Bergeron, longtime co-chair of ChemFriends and environmental man- ager for Occidental Chemical Corpora- tion, said the most unique aspect of this expo is the collaborative effort between the chemical industry, the local parish government, and the school board.

"It is the commitment of these three entities and the wonderful people in them that are key ingredients in making this event successful and is the secret to our longevity," he said. "We have nine- teen years in the books now touching over 40,000 students."

And because of their dedication to, and enthusiasm for ChemFriends, it has become one of the most anticipated annual events for upcoming sixth grade students.

"If you talk with any of the teachers in Ascension Parish, they will tell you the students look forward to attending ChemFriends all year," Bergeron said. "The teachers also love to get involved. We provide experiment guides and resources for equipment and reagents to teachers so they can reproduce our exper- iments in the classroom."

Every public, private and home- schooled sixth grader in Ascension Parish is invited to attend ChemFriends on one day of the two-day event. There are typically 16 different booths of dem- onstrations given by employees from local chemical plants and businesses, as well as other organizations such as Southern University, the Gonzales Fire Department, the Baton Rouge Advocate and the Louisiana Department of Envi- ronmental Quality.

Approximately 300 students go through the event at a time. Before being shown the demonstrations, they are briefed on safety precautions and given a pair of safety glasses to wear while they are there. The students are then divided into 16 groups – each guided by a vol- unteer high school senior. The groups are assigned to four different experi- ments, each lasting about 10 minutes. At the end of their time, the students are given a goody bag, complete with pencils, sharpeners and other items provided by ChemFriends.

Jobie Templet, training coordinator for the Gulf Coast Region for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. and co-chairman of ChemFriends, talks about the excite- ment on the students’ faces watching the demonstrations.

“When these sixth graders make the connection between the work they do in the classroom and how it translates into the real world, it makes their face light up,” she said. “It helps them put two and two together.”

The expo culminates with a com- munity night open to the public at no charge, although most attendants are stu- dents returning with their parents to see other experiments they may have missed during the day. Every year, more than 2,000 students have the opportunity to attend the event and nearly 500 more participate in community night.

Michael Patterson, co-chairman of the inaugural ChemFriends committee, said the benefits of ChemFriends are numerous.

“First and foremost, it promotes sci- ence and chemistry in the classroom, which remains a focus in education. It also brings parents and other members of the public out on community night, thus helping to bring the community together with the chemical industry, which serves to enhance relationships and communication. And finally, it pro- vides a medium for the chemical industry to work together with local government and the school system for mutual benefit of everyone involved,” Patterson said.

The numbers of students impacted by the ChemFriends Expo over the past two decades tops 40,000 and many who have attended are now working in the facili- ties that participate annually.

"Just a few years back, I had the pleasure of talking with a few of the ChemFriends volunteers from Southern University," Bergeron said. "Two young gentlemen stepped forward stating they were both from Ascension Parish and remembered going through ChemFriends back in sixth grade. Both credited their experi- ence at ChemFriends all those years ago for sparking their interest in science and for steering them to pursue degrees in chemistry at Southern. That is why we do what we do and love it. ChemFriends makes a difference - for the students, for the community, for the future."

This year, STS looks forward to taking part in ChemFriends again and Judith Nordgren says it is not a surprise that the event is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

“Ascension Parish has always had a great spirit of collaboration, especially when it comes to the education of our children. I'm proud to have been part of the initial team some 20 years ago with a gem of an idea to offer students a glimpse into our industry, chemistries and the products we produce every day right here in their backyard. I'm equally proud that ChemFriends remains such a prominent part of the community's fabric. Congrat- ulations and here's to another 20 years.”

Sadly, this year ChemFriends Expo will not be held in November. Due to the recent f looding in Ascension Parish, the committee determined that the com- munity needs to focus all its efforts on rebuilding. However, they are hopeful that with an extended school year, they will be able to find a date in the spring or early summer of 2017. 

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