Plop, plop, fizz, fizz ... boom! Bellefonte science night offers real-world applications

Youngsters listen to Jesse McTernan as he explains the pressure inside a film canister and alka seltzer rocket during Exploration U at Bellefonte Area High School on Thursday.
Youngsters listen to Jesse McTernan as he explains the pressure inside a film canister and alka seltzer rocket during Exploration U at Bellefonte Area High School on Thursday. CDT photo

A loud boom could be heard about every 30 seconds in a conversation-filled corridor of the Bellefonte Area High School hallway near the gymnasium on Thursday night.

Every so often, a visitor would turn their head toward the Penn State Student Space Program Laboratory station participating in a project that created the explosion sound.

Doctoral candidate of aerospace engineering Jesse McTernan and his science partner Timothy Brubaker, a second-year graduate student in electrical engineering, spearheaded the experiment as part of Exploration-U: Bellefonte Family Science Night.

They allowed children to fill a film container with water, then drop a quarter of a piece of Alka Seltzer in it, close the lid, shake it up and then place it on the ground upside-down.

Within about 30 seconds, the base of the container flew off the lid and into the air, creating a “boom” sound, and leaving kids wanting to do it again.

“That was crazy — seriously — so cool,” said Jonathan White, 5. “I got to do this again.”

The Bellefonte Elementary School kindergartner said it was his favorite station at the event.

Brubaker said it was their way of showing kids how they launch rockets, but in a safe and easy-to-understand method.

The Alka Seltzer created a “fizz reaction” that allowed the canister to expand from the pressure and burst, Brubaker said.

Exploration-U is a Penn State-run program through the Eberly College of Science that aims to get local youth interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

“We target all kids, kindergarten to 12th grades,” said program director Michael Zeman. “We want to provide that level of experience that makes kids excited about STEM studies.”

Zeman said it encourages elementary school students to have fun with the sciences, lets the middle school students understand the content in a hands-on way, and can help form a STEM-related career path for high schoolers.

“We know the maths and sciences are hard, so putting it an interactive way they can understand might allow them to see these subjects as more enjoyable,” Zeman said.

This is the program’s fourth year and is held annually at the Bellefonte and State College area school districts.

This year, it included science stations run by more than 30 Penn State student groups, and about a dozen community organizations including Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center that showcased its wild animals.

“We have a different kind of education here,” said environmental education intern Travis Smith. “They might see me holding a snake and be intimidated, but we can help them conquer those fears by being an example to them and help them break through that fear.”

At another station in the gymnasium, the Penn State Society of Women Engineers made a creation of cornstarch and water that turn into both a solid and liquid, depending on force used.

They called it “ooze.”

Mechanical engineering student Nicole Gallegor introduced the concoction by first poking her finger slowly through the mix. But then when she tried to jam her finger into it, the ooze hardened.

Zeman said each year he works with the school districts to enhance the program. The Bellefonte science night included more stations than ever before that Zeman said was a “win-win” for all involved.

“The students have the opportunity to get real world experiences to practice science education skill sets,” Zeman said.