Can Chemistry Actually Be Fun?

Students utilize tie-dye to learn chromatography

Hmm ... This particular tie-dye T-shirt looked great all bundled up, but once opened, the effect may have lost its luster. Experimenting with different effects was part of the challenge of Meena Rustagi’s chemistry class.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

Hmm ... This particular tie-dye T-shirt looked great all bundled up, but once opened, the effect may have lost its luster. Experimenting with different effects was part of the challenge of Meena Rustagi’s chemistry class.


What’s a chemist’s pick-up line?

Are you full of Beryllium, Gold and Titanium? Because if you are, you are BeAuTi-full.

Xheli Marquis, a Payon High School student, found the chemistry pun on Facebook and decided to use it on the T-shirt she decorated with Sharpie pens for her chemistry class. After Marquis and her classmates used the pens, they dropped rubbing alcohol on the marks to cause them to spread the color, thereby learning about the concept of separation of mixtures or chromatography.

Marquis’ chemistry teacher, Meena Rustagi, walked around the classroom in a T-shirt she had decorated herself with chemistry puns such as “NaCl/NaOh = the base is under assault” and plain old “Chem is Fun.”

“This exercise will teach separation of mixtures,” said Rustagi. “We will add onto the lesson in coming chapters, which will answer more questions.”

The students in Rustagi’s class clearly enjoy the out-of-the-box nature of the lesson. Heads bent, concentration focused, the class worked on writing chemistry puns or designs on the white, cotton T-shirts.

“They don’t have to be intimidated by chemistry,” said Rustagi.


Jessica York concentrates on getting her colors in all the right places during a T-shirt tie-dye lesson in Meena Rustagi’s chemistry class.

Some of the class twisted up the shirts, holding them in place with rubber bands before carefully applying drops of alcohol to the pen designs and words.

Once the alcohol hit the permanent marker, the colors fanned out, breaking into the primary colors. That showed the students the concept of chromatography in action.

Chromatography is a way to study how mixtures separate into the chemicals that make up the mixture.

As the students dropped rubbing alcohol onto their creations, the room filled with the smell of a sterile medical office.

“It smells like a doctor’s office in here,” said sophomore Zoe Wright. “I feel like I need to get a shot!”

Giggles erupted.

However much fun the project, the students still had learning to do. Throughout the class period, Rustagi wandered the room making sure the students followed through on answering questions on the worksheet such as, “What do you see after five minutes? After 10 minutes? Are there any safety precautions that should be taken with isopropanol (alcohol)?”

“You need to keep care to see which colors separate out,” said Rustagi. “There are questions on your homework.”

But Rustagi sought to make the chemistry lesson fun. She challenged the students to find other puns.

Sophomore Natalia Olivares wrote, “Why shouldn’t you throw NaCl at someone? Because it’s a salt.” The students laughed.

Ian Gabriel wrote: SAuCeYNeSS — all from the initials of elements from the periodic table.

“I memorized the periodic table in fifth grade,” said the sophomore who originally came from the Philippines.

Most of the students in Rustagi’s class are sophomores who have not worked with the periodic table yet. Gabriel’s early exposure to the periodic table illustrates the weakness in the American education system.

Most other country’s students are much stronger in math and science.

In a 2009 study, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that United States 15-year-olds placed 23rd in science and 31st in math out of 65 countries.

In an increasingly globalized world, U.S. students will find themselves competing against students more advanced in science and math.

Even Rustagi comes from a foreign country. Eight years ago, she came to the United States to be with family. She received all her education from the Indian universities of Maharshi Dayanano University and Kurukshetray University.

“I studied inorganic chemistry, it’s theoretical,” she said. “(PHS students) are doing organic chemistry.”

Yet with creative education techniques such as Rustagi’s Sharpie tie-dye exercise, more students might find chemistry fun and decide to pursue the subject.


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