"Water is actually really fascinating," Paige said as she helped a trio of students work their way through an exercise using an electrical current to separate the liquid's hydrogen and hydroxide ions. "Water is unique, because it can kind of behave in a variety of ways. And so all these different activities are really to get them to see how amazing water is."
The classroom, located inside Foothill College's new Physical Sciences & Engineering Center, was filled with a number of water-based experiments. One exercise demonstrated that cold water is denser than warm water, while another showed how adding soap to water could change the liquid's surface tension.
The course, or "cohort," on water, is the fourth and final installment of the new summer camp, which began this year at Foothill. Camps focusing on the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math are nothing new in Silicon Valley, but this program is in its first year at Foothill.
According to Peter Murray, dean of the physical sciences, math and engineering division at the college, the camp has been a success. It was funded entirely by private donors, including the Palo Alto and Los Altos Rotary clubs and a large donation from Honmai and Joe Goodman of Los Altos. The camp received more interest than the college anticipated, but no one was turned away — Foothill hired more teachers to accommodate all the students who were interested, Murray said.
With the way things have gone this year, Murray said, he has hopes that the program will grow next year, which Paige said she thinks is great.
Paige said she is very excited that the camp is being held at Foothill's new PSEC building, because it gives her access to tools she wouldn't normally have at school. She will be conducting an exercise using a distiller, which neither she — a teacher at the well-funded Los Altos High School — nor her students have ever had the chance to use in a classroom.
She is going to distill Kool-Aid she says, to demonstrate to her students that even the distilling process has the potential to leave trace elements of flavoring and color behind. She said the salts and sugars ought to be mostly removed from the juice mix, but that there will still be faint color and a hint of the original flavor in the water.
"The idea is that distillation is one of the most common methods of people making pure water. But to actually trust that it's clean — how would you know?"
"The final distillate should be as pure as possible — because that's what everyone thinks." But that's not the case, she said.
"As great a method as it is, the still has its limitations." She said to get to completely neutral water, you have to go through reverse osmosis, distillation and filtration.
This exercise and many others in the water cohort are very applicable to students' real lives, she notes. As consumers, we are constantly buying products that say they are loaded up with some kind of vitamin or mineral that is supposed to be good for us, or free of some kind of chemical that is bad for us, or they are triple distilled. The list goes on, she said. Learning the chemistry behind what all that marketing jargon really means is empowering, she said.
Consider the taste test experiment she had the students do. She had her students taste different cups of water. Some were tap water, others were run through a standard home water filter, and some were bottled water. "Most students assumed that whichever water in their sample tasted the worst, then that was going to be the tap water, and they were all wrong." They all ranked a bottled water as their least favorite.
"One of the claims that bottle water companies make is that their water tastes better, which is sometimes the case, but also that it's cleaner — it's better for you — right? Dasani and Aquafina are municipal waters that have been purified. So, we're going to see. Does it really make that much of a difference, especially if you do a cost analysis of how much money your spending on bottle water?"