Potions & Lotions: Visiting Professor Kayla Kaiser and Several of Her W.M. Keck Science Department Students Give a Creative Chemistry Lesson to Nearly 100 Fifth-Graders

Hogwarts. The place where Harry Potter and his wizardly friends learned about the magical, the fantastical, and even the science-ical, through one entertaining classroom escapade after another. By comparison, how could the education of mere mortals in real life seem anything but dull? Well, with a spark of creativity, visiting professor Kayla Kaiser and five of her students from the W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, and Scripps College, pulled a little magic of their own on April 17, when they turned the cafeteria at Manuel A. Salinas Creative Arts Elementary School in San Bernardino into a lip-smacking-good laboratory. Using an outline called Lotions & Potions: Lessons in Cosmetic Chemistry, Kaiser and team walked 100 or more fifth-graders through the process of making lip balm.

The hands-on lesson was hoped to cast a spell over the budding young scientists of the group, but was a lesson for all in the role that words like solvents, oils, waxes, emulsifiers, emollients, surfactants, and stabilizers play in the making of cosmetics. To that end, professor Kaiser and Keck Science students Brandon Kim (PIT), Moriah Lerner (SCR), Isabel English (SCR), Emily Muller (SCR), Lily Rubin (PIT), and Carmen Velazquez (PIT) drafted a script of age-appropriate language for the youngsters, describing processes occurring at the molecular level. They also brought visual aids and handouts, glassware, hot plates, stirring rods, and recycled Easter eggs as plastic containers for the balm.

Earth Day added a dash of environmental kindness to the project as well. Kaiser rounded up organic and, where possible, locally sourced ingredients, including items from Whole Foods and her own garden. And to save on energy, the process pioneered by T. Joseph Lin (who developed low-energy emulsification while working at Max Factor Cosmetics for 20 years) was used for melting solids. “It’s so great to celebrate Earth Day, recycling, green processes, and chemistry,” Kaiser said. “And it’s so rewarding to see science in action, beyond the campus walls.”

The students at Manuel Salinas had spent their entire morning in standardized testing, but by early afternoon, were unknowingly meeting fifth-grade science standards by whipping up three flavors of lip balmor “emulsions” as the scientists might say, and observing how small variances in ingredients could thicken or dilute texture, and effect flavor and color.

It’s not the first time the visiting professor has worked with students at Manuel A. Salinas Creative Arts Elementary School, which serves about 500 students in grades K through 5. She began organizing hands-on science activities at the school with primary teacher Brian Zubak, back when she was a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside.

Thanks to the magic of creative learning, the college-in-the-classroom experiences, Kaiser says, have impact beyond the lesson plan. They’re also a great dialogue-opener for children who want to know more about science, and evenyeswhat it’s like to go to college.

“I am so proud of my students,” Kaiser said. “The time and energy they volunteered to prepare and successfully facilitate this activity inspires me. Our outreach team made a lasting impression on these young people not only regarding the chemical principals involved in preparation of lip balm, but also the importance of recycling and use of botanicals in cosmetics. A special thanks goes to Brian Zubak and our new friends at Salinas Elementary for sharing the afternoon with us!”

About the The W.M. Keck Science Department

The W.M. Keck Science Department is the interdisciplinary home to all biology, chemistry, and physics faculty for Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps colleges. The department is administered cooperatively and is housed within an 81,000-square-foot Center, located at the intersection of the three colleges. The department offers 13 discrete degree options, including dual-degree programs in partnership with schools of engineering and majors in conjunction with disciplines outside the sciences. The W.M. Keck Science Department provides comprehensive, interdisciplinary instruction in small class settings and numerous opportunities for students to conduct research. Our graduates enter a significant range of careers and enjoy acceptance into prestigious graduate research and health science programs.