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At Play: The magic of science
Professor’s flashy performances delight young students

science show magic
Chemistry Professor Fred MacDonnell, right, wows youngsters with his "magic" science show at a UT Arlington summer camp. He's assisted by software engineering graduate student Denis Gjoni.


The children’s eyes widen, and they gasp at Fred MacDonnell’s every move. His special potion generates frozen flowers, incredible shrinking and unshrinking balloons, powder explosions—all eliciting cries of  “Wow!” and “Do it again!”

He performs expertly and effortlessly, holding his young audience spellbound.

After this and every series of tricks, he pulls the ultimate magician taboo and reveals his secrets. The potion was liquid nitrogen, and the “magic” that the children just witnessed was simply the wonders of applied science.

Every summer Dr. MacDonnell, a UT Arlington inorganic chemistry professor, uses a variety of lab compounds and equipment to put on routines that serve both to excite and educate. He began 11 years ago after a friend asked if he could perform chemistry demonstrations for some local students, and the magic theme developed from there.

His shows—complete with fog, colored fire and bubbly foam—are more reminiscent of Bill Nye than Harry Houdini. However, his act is no less astonishing. He believes he has found a special way to make learning science fun and attainable.

“I personally don’t think science needs to be so mysterious to the lay public,” he says. “Often if you explain something with good analogies and skip all the big words, people can grasp the essence of what’s going on.”

MacDonnell’s favorite students to entertain are 5th- and 6th-graders, many of whom come to campus during the summer for science programs and engineering camps. “I love the enthusiasm young students have about science,” he says. He finds that their youth allows them to be very uninhibited about their curiosity.

“Questions are a huge part of the show,” he says. “The more, the better!”

Although his fan base is mostly middle-schoolers, MacDonnell still has the ability to impress the older students who occasionally pepper his audience. Says 2006 Kingwood High School graduate Alex Swaim: “I’ve seen most of these demos before, but they’re always fun to watch.”

During show time, it’s obvious that MacDonnell enjoys performing as much as the children enjoy watching. He doesn’t ordinarily perform for students when he teaches his college chemistry course—not because he doesn’t want to, but because his schedule doesn’t leave much time for demonstrations. Even without the smoke and flames, he still strives to be a “stimulating” professor.

MacDonnell insists that his success as an effective performer and instructor is heavily influenced by his research. In addition to teaching, he directs the Center for Nanostructured Materials, specializing in the synthesis of certain metal-organic compounds with favorable health and technical applications. Research, he says, allows him to effectively translate chemistry because it helps him differentiate what’s really important for students versus what’s not so important.

“As I learn more and see relationships between the subject matter, I often change the way in which I present material,” he says.

With his special talent for teaching and exciting youngsters about science, one wonders if his own children want to follow in his footsteps. MacDonnell admits that, while his 11-year-old son is very interested in science, he would forgo a career in chemistry to pursue another love: “Right now, he wants to be a pro hockey player!”

— Camille Rogers

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