„That’s funny …“ – teenagers living one day in the life of a scientist

Isaac Asimov supposedly once said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”. Indeed, many scientists have experienced this notion that something in their data is so puzzling, so difficult to explain that they desperately want to find out more about it.


Instructions ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

This is also the spirit of exploration that we at the RUB Chair for Chemistry Education hope to install in future scientists. And this is the aim of the one-day project “High Resolution – focus on research” that runs since 2015, in cooperation with RESOLV, at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory. There, students should think and discuss about methods and challenges of scientific inquiry, experience them first hand and also look over the shoulder of real scientists. These are high expectations, but how does the project work in practice?

One day in high resolution…


On the lab bench ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

Students – usually a class of 14 to 16 year-olds – and teachers arrive at the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory at 9 am. They are welcomed by a member of the science education staff. First of all, they get an introductory example on the early stages of systematic science – 18th century Joseph Priestley’s research on air. The gap to the 21st century is bridged when the students discuss how Priestley would present his findings today. Then they are introduced to JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, where real scientists publish their papers as videos. The big take-away from this introduction is that scientific inquiry is not only about finding things out, it is also about communicating your inquiry to other people. With this in mind, the students enter the laboratory at 10 am. They learn about the methods and the aims of scientific inquiry.


Time to measure ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They get training in using chemiluminiscence and microscopy to investigate cells. They then develop their own research questions about various plants, they carry out their investigations and have to come up with their own conclusions. Most importantly, once they found something interesting, students are asked to shoot and edit a video on their inquiry using tablet computers. Just before lunch, the final take and cut have to be done.

After lunch, the students enter one of the RESOLV laboratories. They visit the group of Jun.-Prof. Simon Ebbinghaus, who investigates protein aggregation using fluorescence microscopy. Usually, one PhD student in Ebbinghaus group presents his/her research on protein aggregation in model cells, and introduces the students to the fluorescence microscope and how to operate it manually and via computer. Most importantly, teenagers get a chance to ask questions concerning science, how to become a scientist and life in academia.

At the end of the day, the students return to the Alfried Krupp School Laboratory.

“That’s funny”…students get to know the puzzling of science under the guidance of Dr. Magdalena Groß ©Alfried Krupp-Schülerlabor

They watch and evaluate their movies, trying to make a fair and honest judgement whether they have performed and presented convincing inquiries. It turns out that many would have wanted to be more rigorous. But they all agree that theirs was only a first step on the long and winding road to becoming a scientist. Hopefully, they’ll remember that day, when they look through an ocular at something puzzling and thought: “That’s funny…”.

Work in progress

The school laboratory project has been offered, booked and evaluated since the beginning of 2015. So far, eight groups with about 170 students have participated in the project. Students from regional and national schools as well as high-achieving students (“Chemie-Olympiade”, “Biologie-Olympiade”) have taken part in the initiative. We continuously evaluate the program by asking participating students, teachers and science educators for their opinions. The students particularly like the opportunity to carry out their own inquiries, they enjoy making videos about their experiments and they highly value the chance to see and talk to a real scientist. The project will continue to change if necessary as the main priority remains to keep the focus on research.

Additional material and publications

Braun, S., Strippel, C. G., Sommer, K. (2016). Naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnisgewinnung in Schüler-Videos. Proceedings of the Gesellschaft für Didaktik der Chemie und Physik. Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Strippel, C. G., Tomala, L., & Sommer, K. (accepted). Klappe, die Erste! – Schüler produzieren eigene Experimentiervideos. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlicher Unterricht.

About the authors

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

Christian Strippel was born 1988 in Bochum and holds a M.Ed. in Chemistry and English. His (scientific) motto of life is: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
He studied in Cambridge (UK) for one year and holds a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (Chemistry, University of Cambridge). Currently, he works on his Ph.D. project “Communication about scientific inquiry during experimentation”.


Prof Dr Katrin Sommer © RUB, Marquard zu nennen.

© RUB, Marquard

Katrin Sommer is Professor of Chemistry Education at the Ruhr-University since 2004. She is also head of the Alfried Krupp-School Laboratory since 2012. She has a 1. Staatsexamen in Chemistry and Biology from Leipzig University (1995), a 2. Staatsexamen (1997) and a PhD in Chemistry Education from Nuremberg-Erlangen University (2000). She was recently presented with the Award from the German Polytechnik Society for the parent-child-project KEMIE.


Solvation science into focus at historic Solvay conference.

Three members of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV attended last October the renowned Solvay-Conference on Chemistry in Brussel, an event open to invited scientists only. Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith, speaker of RESOLV at RUB, Prof. Dr. Frank Neese, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Energy Conversion, and Prof. Dr. Benjamin List, director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research, both based in Mülheim an der Ruhr, were among the fifty attendees.


2016 Solvay Conference group picture ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay, the founder of the chemical company Solvay S.A., initiated the first series of international conferences on physics in 1911, while the first meeting on chemistry occurred in 1922. Since then the Solvay-Conferences on Chemistry and Physics had been held every three years. The conferences have become extremely famous after the 1927 physics meeting on ´Electrons and Photons´, when Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among others, met to discuss the newly forged quantum theory.

The 2016 meeting evolved around the theme ‘Catalysis in Chemistry and Biology’. We briefly interviewed Havenith, List and Neese about their experience in Brussels.


What was your impression of the conference?


Discussing at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Martina Havenith: It was very impressive for many different reasons. First of all, it’s rare to see five Nobel prize winners together! – and it’s even rarer that they are listening to your ideas and discussing the future direction of chemistry. Besides, it was an intimate meeting, and we had much more time than usual for discussions. It was also remarkable to witness the special engagement of an industrial family into science. And it was impressive to read the names of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie in a guestbook!

Benjamin List:  One of the best conferences I have ever attended!

Frank Neese: The conference was unlike any other I have ever attended. There obviously is an impressive history associated with Solvay conferences and it was a major honor to be invited to participate. It takes place in a fairly unique setting in a beautiful historic hotel in Brussels with a closed circle of only invited international speakers and an outstanding accompanying program. The format is also different from usual: The talks are just ten minutes long and the discussion takes first place among the members of the session, only later it involves the other guests.


What was the take-home message? How was solvation science portrayed?

Martina Havenith: This meeting focused on the main challenges in catalysis. It was not about the details of the field but it rather provided a big picture of what we have learned in the past and what is still unclear. Most interesting for RESOLV: In the end it was noted that the solvent has not yet been taken much into consideration, but in the future we should have a closer look into it and its important role in catalysis.


Session begins at the 2016 Solvay Conference ©InternationalSolvayInstitutes

Benjamin List: I was able to identify three unifying principles of catalysis – including heterogeneous, homogenous organic and metal catalysis, and biocatalysis: 1. Turnover frequency (an index of a catalyst’s activity: The larger the frequency, the more active the catalyst); 2. Confinement (a well-defined and confined local environment of a catalyst’s active site); and 3. Solvation! Everybody in the field is aware of the unique relevance of solvation to catalysis – understanding this defines one of the grand challenges of the field.

Frank Neese: It became very evident that an open dialogue among the various disciplines of catalysis, in particular homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, is really needed. At the end of the day, the problems are the same (what are the intermediates? How is selectivity controlled? How is the energy loss minimized?). Yet vocabulary, cultures and challenges of the various disciplines are vastly different, hence there hardly can be any 1:1 transfer from one field to the other. However, it was interesting to see how biochemists have achieved the most detailed understanding of individual reaction mechanisms in biological catalysis. That’s partially because they are willing to devote their entire career to study few reaction mechanisms and to involve experts from neighbouring disciplines in the endavour. Clearly, quantum chemistry has evolved as a very powerful partner of experiment and it’s becoming a universal tool for catalysis research as a whole.

About the author

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.



Solvation science exhibition ‘Völlig losgelöst’ hits the road in Recklinghausen


Cable car in the museum ‘Strom & Leben’ © Lutz Tomala

There’s a cable car parked in the middle of a room, and a wall covered with radios. Switches, electricity generators and coils? There are so many of them that one expects Nikola Tesla to appear every second. Then, nearby a generator, there’s a table with colored chemical solutions. And in another room appear huge modules, similar to oversized overnight bags wide-open, portraying persons in space suits and explaining about chemistry in solution. Such a striking combination of physics and chemistry got the visitors’ attention at the museum ‘Strom & Leben’ in Recklinghausen on the 6th of November. It was the inauguration day of the Solvation Science exhibition ‘Völlig losgelöst’, taking a first detour since its launch in the Blue Square in Bochum at the beginning of 2016.


Chemistry and physics © Lutz Tomala

“It’s wonderful news that this itinerant exhibition has finally hit the road. Scientific research is an exploratory expedition in the unknown, but the trip itself should not remain undisclosed to the public”, said at the opening Katrin Sommer, Professor for „Didaktik der Chemie” at RUB and one of the designers of the exhibition.

But what do solvation science and electricity have in common?  As the museum’s director Hanswalter Dobbelmann pointed out, “there is indeed a strong historic connection between chemistry and electricity. For example, the discovery of electricity dates back to the first attempts with chemical batteries made by Volta and Galvani.” But the links between chemistry and electricity are not only a thing of the past: “Solvation science is much important for current topics like energy storage”, said Prof. Dr. Havenith, speaker of the Cluster of Excellence RESOLV, “therefore, we currently witness increasing research on solvents used in energy storage media, with the aim to improve their efficiency as well as their safety”.


The exhibition is open, the journey begins © Lutz Tomala

Under these premises, ‘Völlig losgelöst’ will occupy a well-deserved spot in the ‘Strom & Leben’ museum in Rechklinghausen until Spring 2017. Besides presenting the actors and the themes of the RESOLV cluster, the exhibition will offer visitors the possibility to perform small experiments related to solvation science. School classes from the 3rd to the 5th year have also the possibility to book a special experimental program and to dive for two hours into the world of solvents. In the end, as Dobbelmann, Havenith and Sommer hope, by showing the scientists’ journey through a new research expedition, ‘Völlig losgelöst’ might well electrify the young generations to hit the same road in the future.

About the Authors

EF3Emiliano Feresin is a science journalist, currently responsible for the outreach activities within the RESOLV cluster at RUB. Born and raised in Italy, he holds a Diploma and a PhD degree in chemistry. Driven by an innate curiosity for scientific stories, he completed his education with a master degree in science communication. Along the path he has written for outlets like Nature and Chemistry World and learned that the reader has always the last word.

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

@ RUB, Foto: Nelle

Christian Strippel was born 1988 in Bochum and holds a M.Ed. in Chemistry and English. His (scientific) motto of life is: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
He studied in Cambridge (UK) for one year and holds a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (Chemistry, University of Cambridge). Currently, he works on his Ph.D. project “Communication about scientific inquiry during experimentation”.


Tinkering with solvent helps to regulate the crystallization behavior of amino acids

During my PhD research, I investigated the possibility to influence the crystallization behavior of glycine by means of crystallization experiments under ambient conditions. I could show that it is possible to control the crystal formation of glycine from aqueous solution by isotopic exchange (H/D-exchange) on the solvent or the addition of mineral powder.

Glycine, the smallest amino acid, can crystallize from aqueous solution in different stable solid forms that are called α and γ polymorphs. I could show, on a statistical basis, that glycine forms the γ polymorph from heavy water (D2O) solutions instead of the α form, which is known to crystallize from normal water (H2O). Additionally, my studies regarding the introduction of inorganic powdered material, like fluorapatite (Ca5[F(PO4)3]) or calcite (CaCO3), into the crystallization system, also lead to γ formation. That is, our studies showed that the H/D exchange as well as the introduction of inorganic surfaces to the crystallization system influence and even regulate the crystallization behavior of glycine immensely.

The scheme illustrates that either deuteration of the molecule (top) or the application of biominerals (bottom) can lead to crystallization of γ-glycine (right) instead of α-glycine (left) from solution.

As methods the experimental grazing-incidence X-Ray diffraction (GIXRD) investigations accompanied by force field simulations were carried out to describe the interface between the amino acid solution and the biomineral surface structure. The support by computational methods offered an insight into the molecular interaction level and thereby provided nice approaches to explain the observed phenomena.

The video shows force field based molecular dynamic simulations regarding the dissolution of an interacting glycine dimer in aqueous environment of H2O and D2O molecules. Further, it shows the crystallization of glycine from a water solution droplet on fluorapatite (100) surface and calcite (101) surface.

Link to the PhD thesis of Anna Kupka: “Untersuchungen zur Steuerung des Kristallisationsverhaltens von Aminosäuren in Lösung durch den Einsatz von Deuterium oder Biomineralien”

Link to Graduate School Solvation Science

About the Author

anna_kupkaDr. Anna Kupka has recently accomplished her PhD research in the department of Inorganic Chemistry I at Ruhr-University Bochum, as a stipend holder from Graduate School of Solvation Science, GSS, RESOLV. She has had research stays in various scientific institutions in Spain, Italy and France including her GSS internship in Spain, and has attended several conferences.

The Host*: Developing new tools to engage next generations with science

The topics of scientific inquiry and nature of science are the major foci of our work in the Department of Mathematics and Science Education at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.


Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex (85%) ever discovered, at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History © Shoffman11

For example, we worked on the High School Transformation Project (HSTP). HSTP was dedicated to changing the way science is taught at 23 Chicago high schools. We designed curricula in biology, chemistry, and physics that enhance foundational science knowledge, inquiry skills and knowledge, and nature of science through authentic and relevant learning experiences.

For example, in a class lesson designed to learn atomic structure, students had to follow various learning steps: Read the related book chapter; answer questions like “What are living things made up of?” and “What are elements made of?”; work hands on with true objects (in this case beans, peas and strings) to represent the atomic structure, and so on.

To ensure the success of the HSTP program, we provided each participating teacher with continuous and intensive support including on-site, expert, experienced instructional coaches, science faculty and graduate students. There were weekly networking meetings for all teachers. Scientists and educators from IIT and the Field Museum provided monthly professional development. Materials and activities were designed to specifically connect with each school’s diverse cultures and community interests.

Internship zone

I hosted Christian Strippel from the Chemistry Education group at Ruhr-University Bochum for his RESOLV internship in two stints: Fall 2014 and Spring 2016. During his first stay at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), we discussed preliminary ideas on the RESOLV exhibition and it was exciting to see how these ideas turned into the exhibition “Völlig losgelöst”. We also worked with Christian on a paper about research on teachers’ implementation of scientific inquiry in German Chemistry classrooms, which was recently published in the International Journal of Science Education.


Business dinner for young researchers at Peggy Notebart Nature Museum © Christian Strippel

Currently at IIT, we are conducting an international study on seventh grade students’ views about scientific inquiry. Science education researchers have been so far disappointed at what students learn about inquiry in schools, but this has been a feeling mainly based on perception. In fact, until recently, there has never been a comprehensive valid and reliable assessment of students’ understandings of inquiry. The Views About Scientific Inquiry (VASI) was developed at IIT and we are now working with researchers all over the world (i.e., 18 countries) to get a baseline assessment of what seventh grade students understand about inquiry. This will lead to a better idea of how we can engage the next generation with the practices and processes of science – be it as future scientists or as citizens in a global society influenced by science and research.

*The host is a new series of blog posts, revealing the perspective and the work of the scientist hosting RESOLV students for an internship.  

About the author


Norman G. Lederman is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Science Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He has a Ph.D. in Science Education from Syracuse University (1983); M.S. in Secondary Education from Bradley University (1977); M.S. in Biology from New York University (1973); B.S. in Biology from Bradley University (1971). He is internationally known for his work on students’ and teachers’ understandings of nature of science and scientific inquiry.