Scouts explore field of chemistry

Whitman College volunteers helped 28 Scouts with their applications for a merit badge.

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Joel McClure of Boy Scout Troop 305 reflects on why dry ice in water erupts like a cloudy volcano of gas.

WALLA WALLA — About seven Boy Scouts watched as Blake Sanders, 12, took a pair of tongs and picked up a can of Mountain Dew.

Rather than chug the soda normally inside, Sanders carefully lifted the can filled with boiling water off a hot plate and dangled it over a tub of ice water.

"Drop it in the water," a Chemistry Club member said, one of nine Whitman College volunteers helping some 28 Scouts obtain a merit badge in chemistry.

Sanders dropped the can, which instantly made a loud crinkling sound as it imploded due to the vacuum created by the cooling air in the can.

"That was right. That was awesome. Who’s next?" the volunteer said.

For almost four hours Saturday, Scouts from as far away as Stanfield, Ore., performed experiments in hopes of earning a merit badge in chemistry. It was probably the first time such a program has been offered on the campus, noted Whitman College chemistry instructor Nathan Lien.

"I am glad there are so many Scouts interested ... I never got to get a chemistry merit badge," Lien said, who was also a Scout and still has his old uniform.

"I thought about wearing it today ... I don’t think I am technically allowed to wear my Scout uniform. The Boy Scouts of America do have rules," Lien said.

Instead, he wore khaki pants, sneakers, dress shirt and safety glasses as he roamed the lab, making sure all went smoothly.

With more than 120 merit badges available, chemistry is usually far from the most popular badge, noted Dave Roudie, district executive for the Pioneer District of the Blue Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

"Here in this area I would say not very many boys get it. It is not as high of an interest in the community," he said.

First aid is the leader in the region, with 195 merit badges achieved last year.

Chemistry is rarely attempted, in part because it is rarely offered. And when it has been offered, the local Scouts have had to travel to Pendleton, Roudie said.

But on Saturday, Whitman College opened its science building and labs so Scouts could do things like coat iron with copper, test the abrasive properties of calcium carbonate, create vacuums with candles and inverted cups, and try to understand a staple chemistry experiment — the Cartesian diver.

A small sealed container of water, about the size and shape of a lipstick container, was filled with air and water and place in a larger sealed container of water. As the larger container was compressed, the smaller container dove to a lower depth: the Cartesian diver.

"We were never told how they worked," Lien said, remembering when he did this experiment while he was in grade school.

Just then, Star Scout Justin Seymour, 13, of Walla Walla Troop 305 made his attempt to explain how the diver works.

"I was just wondering ...," Seymour asked Lien, "... the reason why the Cartesian diver works, is it that the air compresses more easier than the water?"

"You got it," Nathan said.

Like most Scouts, Seymour has many of the more popular merit badges: rifle shooting, wood carving and swimming. And he’s working on his camping merit badge, another popular badge with 156 achieved last year locally.

After the Scouts have spent their Saturday afternoon fathoming the depths of the Cartesian diver and other chemistry experiments, and after writing a report explaining what was being displayed in those experiments, and after Lien has read and approved the reports, 28 merit badges will most likely be achieved by Scouts like Seymour.

"I have always liked science. It has always interested me, with the different chemical compounds," Seymour said.

He added, "It’s a fun opportunity, I am really glad they did this. I wouldn’t have been able to get it anywhere else."

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