Chemistry passion inspires volunteering

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After lecturing, grading and researching at the university, one chemistry professor goes above and beyond to share his knowledge of the chemical world with the next generation.  

Thomas Sommerfeld, associate professor of theoretical and computational chemistry, volunteers to teach and conduct experiments for students at the Oaks Montessori Elementary School in Hammond. He especially enjoys working with the younger students because of their heightened curiosity for understanding the natural world. 

“They’re all entirely fascinated when I do an experiment. They think it’s incredibly cool,” said Sommerfeld. “In elementary school, they want to know about the natural sciences. They’re really interested, and you can see that.”

Through the American Chemical Society’s Science Coach program, the school was granted $500 to help pay for supplies. In return, Sommerfeld has promised to visit and teach a minimum of eight times for the school year. Outside of the ACS program, Sommerfeld has helped the school for over five years. 

“I like two things a lot: research and teaching. I have found my niche here where I can go do both,” said Sommerfeld. 

In addition to an opportunity to work with younger students, Sommerfeld volunteers because he feels that the students in Louisiana schools deserve better chemistry programs. He believes the problem lies in the instructors’ lack of qualifications. 

“Most schools in Louisiana don’t even have a proper chemistry teacher. They have someone with a biology degree teaching chemistry and physics, which is contributing to problems we have here in college and qualifications for jobs in the chemical industry,” said Sommerfeld. “They were told to memorize the book because the teacher didn’t understand it.” 

For one teaching approach, Sommerfeld conducts a detailed experiment for the seventh grade students who give a watered-down version to younger students under his supervision. 

Sommerfeld chose to work with the school not only because his two sons currently attend, but also because he supports the Montessori’s alternative education structure. 

“They’re self-motivated learners,” said Sommerfeld. “Everybody is at some other spot in their curriculum. They don’t need someone with a whip behind them. With other schools, if there’s nothing assigned, people just stopped doing anything.”

According to Sommerfeld, the instructors work with the students individually and in small groups based on which subjects the students have chosen to focus on. 

“Children can choose in which classroom they go and what kind of work they do,” said Sommerfeld. “The more they grow up, the more teachers will say, ‘You’ve done no math work, so you have to progress on your math work.’ There’s some pressure, but it’s very mildly applied over time.”

Additionally, Sommerfeld serves as the faculty advisor for the university’s ACS-approved chemistry club as well as judging and creating content for the national “You Be The Chemist” challenge. 

For more information about the American Chemical Society, visit acs.org.

Editor's note: A correction has been made to this article. ACS stands for American Chemical Society, not American Chemistry Society.