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Megan Kelley had one goal when she demonstrated a science experiment at DeSmet School last week. She wanted to prove that science is fun.

Elementary students watched in awe while a beaker at the front of the room changed colors during an experiment that Kelley demonstrated as a way to get students interested in coming to Big Sky High School's Science Circus.

Kelley, a junior at Big Sky in the Health Science Academy, is one of more than 100 Big Sky students from different grade levels who are participating in the science circus.

The student-run event aims to get younger students engaged in hands-on science through fun experiments and activities. For the high schoolers, it’s an opportunity to teach what they’ve learned to others.

"It's really fun for our students to pass on their enthusiasm for learning," said Kate Lindner, a Big Sky science teacher. "Everyone wants to make learning science fun, interesting, relevant."

Kelley's experiment began with a beaker filled with water on a glowing metal plate, which elicited “ooohs” and “ahs” from students when she turned on the light. The plate illuminated and stirred the liquid so that it swirled in a tornado-like motion.

Kelley added a handful of ice to the mixture and explained that the water needed to be cold for the reactant to work correctly.

“Does anybody know what milk of magnesia is?” Kelley asked the students, who looked around the room, confused.

“Does anybody know what Tums or Pepto-Bismol are?” she tried again.

Kelley asked the students if they’d ever had a stomach ache or eaten spicy foods that caused them stomach pain and explained that remedies like Tums and Pepto-Bismol contain milk of magnesia.

“You have a natural level of acid in your stomach. That’s what breaks down the food in your tummy,” Kelley said. “When you eat spicy food, your acid level rises up really fast and then what the milk of magnesia does when you drink or eat it, it makes it come back down to normal.”

Kelley poured some milk of magnesia into the beaker, causing the clear water to change to a milky moon-like glow. Then, she added a universal indicator, a pH indicator that shows color changes and helps determine a substance’s pH value. Kelley used the dark blue-purple universal indicator to represent the same kind of acid change that would occur from eating spicy foods.

Next, Kelley added hydrochloric acid to the mixture.

Students exclaimed “woah” in unison as the dark blue color changed to a bright orange-red, which then faded to yellow and green and teal before turning dark blue again.

“When I pour in that hydrochloric acid and the acid level raises — so that’s what happens when your stomach eats spicy food is that acid level kicks up,” Kelley said. “But then that milk of magnesia comes back up against it and drops it back down to the normal color.”

Kelley added hydrochloric acid a few more times at the students' request and told them about the fair. She also made sure to remind them that experiments can be dangerous so it’s important to wear gloves and goggles.

“I wasn’t really interested in science at first but now it's like one of my favorite things,” Kelley said. “Math and science are like my thing. I feel really confident in them, and learning how to do these different things really helped me enjoy it.”

The experiment proved successful, with nearly every student raising their hand to ask a question at the end that ranged from, "What happens if you put more ice in there?" to "Can we do this, too?"

Kelley was one of several students from the Health Science Academy involved with the science circus who visited different Missoula-area schools to pique kids’ interest in the weeks leading up to the event. The science circus will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, at Big Sky High School.

The event features various student projects ranging from traditional experiments to seemingly less-scientific endeavors. This year’s projects will include Kelley’s milk of magnesia experiment, dry ice bubbles, a wave table, bug eating, tie-dye, a Velcro wall, potato guns and even shark dissection.

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K-12 Education