The Catholic University of America

Oct. 29, 2014

Halloween Lesson Takes the Fear out of Chemistry

 
  Diane Bunce speaks to students during a 2011 Halloween class.
 

 While it may not have the creepiness of spiders or the spookiness of ghosts, a great number of people in today’s world are harboring a secret fear, says Catholic University Professor of Chemistry Diane Bunce.

“A lot of people are afraid of chemistry,” she said. “People hate it because they can’t relate to it. It doesn’t enhance their view of the world, or it’s something they survive if they’re lucky.”

Because she hates to see people afraid of her favorite subject, Bunce has spent her career coming up with fun and unique ways of teaching chemistry. One of her favorite traditions happens every Halloween when she requires students to dress up as an element from the periodic table. Students must research the element, create a costume, and bring clues to help their classmates identify them. They are rewarded with up to five points on their next test.

This year’s lesson will take place in Hannan Hall, Room 106, on Friday, Oct. 31, from 12:40 to 1:30 p.m.
In past years, students have dressed as everything from a banana (potassium) to a skeleton (calcium) to a surfer (californium). Group costumes are also encouraged — two or three students may work together to dress as a compound.

Bunce’s favorite costume was years ago, when a student brought in a tape recorder and told Bunce to press play when it was his turn. When she pressed it, students heard a voice with the first clue: “I am an invisible gas.”

“They really have to research for this,” Bunce said. “They have to go online and research and then they have to use their creativity as a drama major, as an elementary school education major, to turn that hard science information into information that’s accessible to the public through a costume.”

 

Students dressed up as their favorite elements in 2011

 

The Halloween lesson is just one of many unique methods Bunce uses to teach chemistry. Over the years, she has included in her courses lessons on the chemistry involved in various holiday traditions like the Thanksgiving meal, Christmas ornaments, and Easter eggs. On St. Patrick’s Day, she cautions against binge drinking by explaining the chemistry of a hangover.

By looking at chemistry creatively, Bunce said she hopes she can show students how the subject connects with their lives. Bunce believes the reason many people dislike chemistry is because they were poorly taught.
“We teach it as very abstract, very mathematical, and we don’t really share our understanding of chemistry, which is the interaction of particles and how those particles result in what you see in the real world,” she said.

“So let’s get it right by saying to the non-science major, ‘Do not park your expertise at the door to the chemistry classroom. Are you a theology major? Are you a philosophy major? Are you a history major? Bring in your expertise and you are the expert of that, I’m the expert of chemistry. Let’s exchange information so we are all enriched in this community of learners.’”

Bunce has received many awards for her teaching over the years. She’s been honored by the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of College Science Teachers, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. She received Catholic University’s James E. Dornan Memorial Teacher of the Year Award in 2005 and the Advancement of Teaching Award in 2009.

While the honors are flattering, Bunce said she is dedicated to teaching because she enjoys helping students see science differently.

“Chemistry is a new way of looking at the world,” she said. “It really is just expanding your understanding of the world. I’m not saying you wouldn’t be a full person if you don’t have it, but how much richer you’ll be if you do.”

MEDIA: Coverage of the class is welcome. Please contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600 or cua-public-affairs@cua.edu for more information.

 

 

 

 

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