Texas A&M University chemist James Pennington looks forward to summer as much as any school kid, to the extent that he plans his calendar a year in advance. After all, it’s for the children.
For the past seven years, Pennington has coordinated one of Texas A&M’s most popular educational outreach programs, the Chemistry Road Show. A free public service funded by the Department of Chemistry and the College of Science in partnership with The Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company, the Road Show sparks public interest in exploring the wonders of science, regardless of age or experience level.
Each summer and on occasional days during the school year, Pennington treks across Texas in a 2011 Chevy Express cargo model van donated by Dow and custom-outfitted to meet the program’s transportation and safety needs. With Pennington in the driver’s seat, the Road Show has expanded from about 30 performances seen by roughly 6,000 students in the Brazos Valley in 2008 to 83 shows reaching more than 22,000 students statewide in 2014. He logged 7,000 miles last summer alone, spreading scientific goodwill to supplement summer enrichment programs, library reading programs and scout camps. He also appeared at museums and outreach programs held on the Texas A&M campus.
Pennington, an instructional assistant professor of chemistry and 2015 recipient of the Texas A&M Association of Former Students’ Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching, says he’s constantly thinking of new ways to use the inherent properties of science to engage and inspire the next generation of leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), whether he’s teaching organic chemistry to non-chemistry majors or expanding the Road Show.
“One of the things I always tell people is that in terms of science, the road show is not the most valuable program within the Department of Chemistry,” Pennington said. “The research and science that is underway here has a much more positive effect on the state of Texas and its people, but sometimes it’s harder to relate to complex research and scientific concepts.”
Every bit as colorful as the trademark tie-dyed lab coat he dons for each show, Pennington took rein of the Road Show in 2008 following the death of its founder, Texas A&M chemist John L. Hogg. In the mid-1980s, Hogg envisioned the show’s pioneering concept of taking science to the public, enabling people to experience science in basic and entertaining ways within the comfortable confines of a familiar educational environment.
Ever the consummate professional, Pennington never fails to introduce his audiences to Hogg at the same time he’s acquainting them with so many of the tricks of the trade Hogg himself originated, from Nitro, the liquid nitrogen-powered Road Show mascot, to the flaming Book of Knowledge. During each show, audience members are dazzled by colorful reactions and polymers growing before their eyes as chemical wonders turn ordinary objects into exciting learning experiences. Pennington has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, including showing iron burning as brightly as the sun; producing a genie from a bottle; and solidifying a cup of water by adding a pinch of dry powder — all reminders that science is stimulating.
Miles and Miles to Go
Although Pennington is licensed to present the Road Show anywhere in Texas, there are notable absences he’d like to correct in West and South Texas.
“Rural and socioeconomically challenged schools and districts don’t always have the money for the curriculum and safety training the show offers,” Pennington said. “Beyond whetting appetites, we could give teachers additional resources as well as points of contact for potential supplements and possible supplies.”
Pennington is also identifying targets beyond Texas through a distance-learning-driven collaboration involving the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum and its educational outreach program within the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center. In 2014, the Road Show reached an estimated 4,500 students from 13 states via live-streaming and videoconferencing services provided by the library.
In addition to campus partners and donors like Dow and Shell, Pennington credits about two dozen Texas A&M undergraduate students who volunteer annually to ensure the show’s future. Most volunteer at three or more events, from setting up and repacking to working with Pennington during the show. In the future, Pennington would like to expand available opportunities for students by providing a service-learning option, possibly via a flexible, non-credit certificate program. He would also like to explore the potential of an endowment to ensure that the Road Show would be funded and self-sufficient in perpetuity.
“We greatly appreciate the annual generosity of our corporate partners, but our hope is to inspire an endowed fund that we can rely on for future programs, versus cobbling a budget together each year,” Pennington said. “It would be an investment in the future of the program and the future of Texas A&M’s vital role in science education and outreach.”
As for Pennington, his investment continues to boil down to one part inspiration, one part education in the overall effort to share a lifelong love of science and science education that, as it was for John Hogg, is both professional and personal.
“I’m a ham,” Pennington said. “I enjoy getting in front of a crowd, and I enjoy seeing the enthusiasm and the excitement. I hope it’s educational but also motivational. I just want to remind kids that science lets them do some pretty cool stuff.”
To learn more about the Texas A&M Chemistry Road Show and view a complete schedule of upcoming performances, visit http://www.chem.tamu.edu/roadshow/.
This article was originally published in the summer 2015 issue of Spirit magazine.
Also see a related feature describing the Road Show’s 35-year-and-counting legacy, courtesy of the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
Watch a Spirit Web Extra showcasing the Texas A&M Chemistry Road Show on YouTube:
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. James Pennington, (979) 845-2686 or email@example.com