For Gracie Litsinger, the recipe for teaching chemistry was a little creativity and a trip to her vegetable drawer.

“I created a pH indicator out of a cabbage and warm water,” said the first-year chemistry major in Virginia Tech's College of Science. “It changes colors if you add an acid.”

Litsinger was one of 14 students in Associate Professor Amanda Morris’ General Chemistry course to create and film kid-friendly science projects in their kitchens to help Wonder Universe, a nonprofit children’s museum in Christiansburg, Virginia, this semester. Morris said the Kitchen Chemistry idea came to her as the university and other institutions across the state were adjusting their operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the extended spring break [for Virginia Tech], all I could think about was this idea of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and how to serve the community and then how my students could do this remotely because they’re not here in Blacksburg,” Morris said.

A member of the board of directors for the museum, Morris contacted Wonder University Executive Director Sarah Nucci to share the video project concept.

“When we had to close [the physical location], we started talking about having online content … so, when Amanda said, do you want some videos, I was like, 'Oh that would be great,’” Nucci said. “I really don’t know exactly what she asked her students to do, but I have to say, I’ve learned all kinds of cool things from these videos.”

Morris, who also created a video, said she asked her students to film themselves doing an age-appropriate chemistry project using common household items and left the rest up to them. She offered them extra credit if they also completed a short paper explaining how their experiment was connected course work.

“I was amazed at what they did,” Morris said. “The quality of my video was nowhere near the students.”

Nucci said the content has helped the nonprofit stay connected with people while they can’t visit its location in the New River Valley Mall, and at no cost. In total, there are 15 videos, which the museum shares one at a time each week via their Facebook page and YouTube channel.

“It’s really helping kids still feel engaged and it’s a great opportunity to reach people without them having to worry about a dollar amount,” Nucci said.

Morris said she believed the project also helped her students better learn the content of her course.

“As educators, we always say, the first time you teach something, that’s when you really learn it,” she said. “I think taking them out of the context of being a student and putting them in the teacher role allowed them to connect with the content in a way they don’t through traditional course learning.”

Litsinger said that was true for her, as did her classmate, Ben Newhouse, who donned his best lab coat and goggles in his film to teach about solubility.

“It challenged me to know the material better and also to be able to explain it and help other people understand it,” said Newhouse, who is studying chemical engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. “I was also lucky I managed to pick up my lab stuff before spring break, so I was able to emphasize safety.”

Though the pandemic has created many trying situations, Morris believes the Kitchen Chemistry videos are an example of how it’s also provided opportunities for creativity and innovation to flourish.

“It kind of goes to show that out of bad things, really great things can result,” Morris said.

— Written by Travis Williams