Phil Buhlmann

“If they can reach up to the height of the table, they’re okay. We just adapt the explanation or what we expect of the kids to whatever age they are.” So notes Phil Buhlmann, a professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and chair of the outreach committee of the ACS Minnesota Local Section. He is speaking of the section’s Chemists in the Library series.

While he laughs when he offers that description of who their events target, he’s not necessarily joking. “I think there’s a period in junior high, mostly, where science is regarded by some kids as something that’s just not cool. And so I think it’s important that kids get excited at an early age, that they get a positive view of the sciences.”

But how to reach those kids? That was a question that Buhlmann and his fellow section member Janet Tarino faced years ago as they were gearing up to offer a 2004 National Chemistry Week event in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region. Following a suggestion from ACS, they reached out to a local library—the St. Paul public library, in this case—and offered to host a chemistry activity. Buhlmann explains that the library staff eagerly accepted. “The librarians don’t just want to be the people who put the books on the shelf. They really try to provide a service to the community. They’re very eager to organize events for their communities.”

The event was a success. So much so that the group jumped straight into a plan of repeating it at a rather aggressive rate. “From there on we decided to keep going and do one every month in a different community library in the Twin Cities area,” he says.

Chemistry in the Library… in ALL the libraries

10 years later they’ve hosted 125 Chemistry in the Library events at more than 20 different libraries in the Twin Cities region. When they are at the main Minneapolis and St. Paul libraries, they can find themselves doing their chemistry with more than a hundred visitors. But, Buhlmann notes, their mission is about more than the numbers. “We make it a point to visit the smaller branches too, and that’s driven by the fact that we want to reach out to these different communities.” In many of the smaller libraries, that means reaching kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods, which Buhlmann particularly enjoys. “I personally get the most satisfaction out of those libraries where the kids have relatively fewer resources. A lot of those kids get one of their first experiences with science at these events. I realize this is not going to be their last, but I do think it’s important that we give these kids the opportunity to have that experience.” And unlike programming on TV and the internet, Chemists in the Library does not just make a show but it allows the children to do hands-on-activities themselves, guided by the volunteers.

Students benefit from helping students

Running a monthly outreach operation requires a terrific amount of manpower, and Buhlmann is very quick to point out that he gets help from all quarters. Years ago, students and faculty from neighboring Century College started assisting with the effort. The Century crew now handles the all-important task of ensuring that the materials needed for the different experiments are in stock and on-hand for each event. And then there are the librarians, who Buhlmann says do a masterful job of linking kids in their libraries to these opportunities. “We have amazing librarians who really try to take care of and mentor the kids who come to their libraries. And they’ll point out to these kids, ‘Hey, the chemists are coming next weekend. You should really be here.’”

Graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota and neighboring colleges also turn out in force, and the volunteer roster is then filled out by professors, chemists employed by companies throughout the region, and retirees looking to keep a foot in the local chemistry community. Buhlmann calls it a “whole potpourri of volunteers,” and notes that this mix of folks has brought a tremendous, if unplanned, benefit to his student volunteers. “What I started to appreciate over the years is that it’s a really good experience for a lot of our student volunteers. It’s actually a pretty good opportunity for the university chemistry students to get to know their peers and talk with chemists at all stages of their careers about opportunities in the Twin Cities.”

Buhlmann adds that the University of Minnesota students can often find themselves in introductory science classes of over 300 students. “And so these kids really have fewer opportunities to get to know a faculty member and to learn what it means to be a grad student. Well, we have professors and graduate students who attend our events. It gives the undergrads an opportunity to ask questions that would otherwise be harder to ask. We never planned for that, but this whole aspect of providing a network for some of our students is actually a really important feature of this program.”

Now taking reservations for 2016

By Buhlmann’s count, the Chemistry in the Library series has now conducted over 125 events, more than 100 of which he has personally attended. And to judge by the continued demand for their efforts, that number will keep rising steadily. Buhlmann explains, “every one-and-a-half years I send out an email to the libraries and say, ‘I’m organizing the schedule again. If you want us, let us know.’ And I usually get so many answers from libraries that want us back with that one email that I fill up out program for the next one-and-a-half years.”

Outreach tips from Phil Buhlmann:

  • Learn as you go: At its outset, Chemists in the Library set out to target middle school, and perhaps even high school, students. But Tarino, Buhlmann, and their peers quickly realized that the libraries attracted a much younger audience, and so they adjusted the program to match the crowd.
  • Accept volunteers from all quarters: Chemists in the Library’s monthly schedule would not be possible without the help of a large and diverse group of volunteers, and the participation of two higher education institutions.
  • Look for, and then encourage, ancillary benefits: This program was intended to help the young kids at the libraries, pure and simple. But as things developed, Buhlmann saw that his university students were also benefitting tremendously. He now encourages those interactions, and cites that aspect of the program in grant applications and other outreach. 

Interviewed November 2014.

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