“Ready, set, go.”
A loud explosion. A flash of something brown flying through the air. A clatter from the PVC pipe structure rebounding off the ground. A splat from the potato landing across the fourth floor.
It’s late afternoon, and East is empty. Chemistry teachers Steven Appier, Jerrod Bardwell and Susan Hallstrom have just set off their potato gun. It was a success. They had a long day, and they wanted to relax. Experiments can do that for them.
Hallstrom has only been working at East for about two years, yet she’s already become close with Bardwell and Appier. Although teachers at other schools have stopped doing their own experiments due to their courses’ intense workload, Appier, Bardwell and Hallstrom consider it a core part of their curriculum.
This love for experiments also comes out in a fun side, leading to hours of interesting trials like exploding ceramic pots in a thermite reaction. Their close working relationship through the experiments has brought them closer.
Experiments are a big part of East’s chemistry classes, which is a rarity, since laboratory-based experiments are disappearing from classrooms. According to Bardwell and Hallstrom, because of the amount of work the teachers have to put in to set up, perform and grade the labs, most teachers have stopped doing them.
“This program has way too much stuff in it,” Bardwell said. “So we’re the only ones left [in the district] that we know of that still collects homework and one of the very few that still do real labs. Most all the other teachers [in the district] have been worked to death and have stopped doing stuff.”
Bardwell and Hallstrom explained that it was nearly impossible for one person to do the work alone. The work is just too much. Budget cuts, combined with a plethora of students, lead to the experiments being too labor intensive.
The teachers can spend up to 10 hours working to set up for the labs. They have to prepare solutions — if one drop is wrong then the reaction won’t go right. They have to set out chemicals — if a chemical isn’t ready on hand then the lab can’t continue. They have to make sure specialized glassware, like beakers, volumetric flasks and other materials are ready to go.
Often they will be at East late into the night after school trying to prepare everything. But if it wasn’t for their group mentality, things would be a lot harder for the teachers. East chemistry teachers have had a long history of working together, and Appier, Bardwell and Hallstrom are no different.
“It’s been that way for years,” Bardwell said. “The only way we can run this program is because we all work together and divide the work amongst ourselves.”
But even with the all the work they have to do, Appier, Bardwell and Hallstrom still manage to unwind. From late-night experiments with potato guns to old pranks with butyric acid, a chemical that smells like concentrated vomit, they’ve done it all.
“We, this was a long time ago, took a beaker of that butyric acid and may have set it in a corner in an administrator’s office and just left it there for a day or two,” Appier said. “That may have happened.”
Another time, for Dec. 12, 2012, Appier and Bardwell made little piles of gunpowder and attached a chemical fuse. Then, at 12:12 p.m., they lit the fuse, causing a massive explosion.
With pranks that keep each other on their toes, the teachers have done it all.
“We tried to shoot a mole at Appier the other day down the hall,” Bardwell said. “We lit it on fire. Not a live one, a stuffed one. I have a mole puppet in my room now that’s all scorched because it accidently got lit on fire. Oh, well.”
Junior Natalie Kaufmann remembers once watching a thermite experiment in Bardwell’s class.
“We basically reacted a couple substances together in a flower pot,” Kaufmann said. “and it failed three times. But the fourth time it exploded in fire and lit the grass on fire. That was pretty awesome.”
One of Appier’s memorable experiments is when they grind up a peppermint and drop it into acid. All at once, the peppermint’s energy is released and it results in a fiery explosion. A picture of this moment hangs on Appier’s back wall.
The experiments are what brings the teachers together; whether it’s through the hours of work setting up for them, or laughing about old failed experiments. They’ve experienced the stress and pain together and been there through the laughs and joy.
“Well, except for Bardwell,” Appier said. “No one really likes Bardwell, we just tolerate him. Hallstrom and I get along pretty well. No yeah, I would say that’s a pretty fair statement.”