Every­thing we can touch, feel or smell, we can use chem­istry to study,” said Prin­cipal Research Sci­en­tist Elham Ghab­bour of the Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­ical Biology to a class­room of third-​​graders at Hardy Ele­men­tary School in Arlington, Mass. Each of the 26 stu­dents proudly donned safety glasses loaned by Northeastern’s Office of Envi­ron­mental Health and Safety.

Last spring, the Amer­ican Chem­ical Society con­tacted Ghab­bour about a pro­gram that aims to excite young stu­dents about sci­ence. Ghab­bour reached out to the local ele­men­tary school to gauge interest and was hap­pily invited to visit in January.

Ghab­bour, along with seniors Liz Duquette (an envi­ron­mental sci­ence major with a con­cen­tra­tion in marine biology) and Zack Bonin (a chem­istry and envi­ron­mental sci­ence com­bined major), pre­sented five exper­i­ments addressing three chem­ical con­cepts: poly­mers, absorp­tion and prop­er­ties. Stu­dents learned about every­thing from chem­ical bonding to how to make “slime” by com­bining two dif­ferent polymers.

Duquette drew a row of cir­cles linked together with dashes on the chalk­board to explain poly­mers — a chain of small mol­e­cules linked together by chem­ical bonds. “Hair, skin, feathers and turtle shells are exam­ples of nat­ural poly­mers,” said Ghabbour.

Bonin poured water into a paper cup filled with a syn­thetic polymer used in baby dia­pers. To the stu­dents’ amaze­ment, the polymer held the water in the cup when Bonin turned it upside down.

In preparing for the demon­stra­tions, Duquette said she felt like a kid her­self. She had expected it to be hard to get the stu­dents’ atten­tion, “but when you give them some­thing cool like that they’re totally engaged,” she said. “And they just kept wanting to know more.”

Bonin agreed, saying, “They were really under­standing it.”

Ghab­bour explained her own research, in which both Duquette and Bonin have par­tic­i­pated, within the con­text of the three new con­cepts: humic acid, she explained, is a “polymer that holds water in the soil,” dis­tin­guishing back­yard dirt from sand on a beach. “It absorbs nutri­tion for plants and releases it later when the plant needs it.”

At the end of the day, the stu­dents were reluc­tant to give back their safety glasses but expressed excite­ment that they might one day wear them again: “When I get older I think I want to take a sci­ence semester in high school or col­lege,” wrote one stu­dent, sum­ma­rizing the sen­ti­ment in many of the stu­dents’ thank-​​you notes. Ghab­bour hopes to make this a tra­di­tion, opening more local stu­dents’ eyes to the won­ders of chemistry.