By Grace Smith

What do you get when you put together a group of students and professors with a passion for one of the oldest scientific disciplines, and a desire to do good? It’s a winning solution called the Santa Monica College (SMC) Chemistry Club.

On March 13, the American Chemical Society (ACS) Committee on Education will recognize this student-run SMC club — which became a recognized student chapter of the world’s largest scientific society in 2012 — with an ‘Outstanding’ recognition, ACS’s highest. It’s an honor not even their counterparts at UCLA can claim.

“When I found out that we got this recognition, I was over the moon!” says Jennifer Hsieh, Ph.D, SMC chemistry professor and the club’s faculty advisor. “It took a lot of work from many dedicated students – and I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.”

Elsa Avila, SMC alum and freshman at Cal Poly Pomona, was one of those students. She became the club’s outreach and activities coordinator after its “rebranding” as a student chapter of the ACS, which included adopting a constitution that reflects the society’s values, with three main goals of outreach, professional development, and promoting chemistry. Avila helped organize outreach trips to Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Los Angeles, and to Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica (outreach like this is a large part of the reason for the club’s recognition by the ACS).

“What the kids were experiencing seemed completely new to them,” says Avila. “Their expressions were priceless.” Last year, the club also organized outreach to Will Rogers Elementary School, just a stone’s throw away from SMC’s main campus. SMC students demonstrated concepts like density — using smelly cooking products and fake eyeballs — to fourth and fifth graders enrolled in the Childcare, Recreation, Enrichment, and Sports Together (CREST) after school program at Will Rogers.

Elmer Landaverde, a programs coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, says that the opportunity the elementary school students got — to experience something that may spark an interest in science — is priceless. This year, the club also plans to host students from John Adams Middle School in one of SMC’s labs for a “Science Saturday”, a day involving fun with science.

Co-advisor and SMC chemistry professor Travis Pecorelli, PhD, points out also that the club is not just for chemistry students. Last spring, he and Hsieh took club members to an academic conference organized by the Association for Women in Science, as part of the club’s professional development. “They had no idea what was going to be involved,” says Pecorelli. “But they really, really enjoyed it.”

Within just three years of becoming a student chapter of the ACS, the SMC club has “hit their stride”, says Hsieh. Highlights include inviting prominent speakers to campus, like Kevin Grazier, science adviser to the Academy Award-winning movie “Gravity” and the TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” among others; and Amy Berg, a science fiction writer.

The club also hosted a first-ever “Chemistry Olympics” and — by its third year — had redesigned their outreach program from a chemistry “magic show” demonstration to a smaller, safe project that an elementary school student could set up with a little help from SMC students, and take home to share with their parents. At Will Rogers, the children who participated in the club’s density demonstration took home Mason jars filled with a “witch’s brew” of molasses, honey and cooking oil topped off with a fake eye-ball – just in time for Halloween.

“The thing I am most proud of is that we’ve created this family,” says Hsieh. “Club members keep in touch, even after transferring to universities, and continue to support each other. What more could we ask for?” The club plans on continuing with “great programming” at their weekly meetings, and hopes that their outreach events will evolve into something campus-wide, says Hsieh. “Maybe something where families in the community can come to campus for a day of science.”

Along with SMC, 54 student chapters from other colleges and universities will also receive the ‘Outstanding’ recognition at the 251st ACS National Meeting in San Diego. The Chemistry Club is one of approximately 70 student clubs at SMC.

For more information on the chemistry club, contact Jennifer Hsieh at Hsieh_Jennifer@smc.edu or call 310-434-4887.