You are here

Marjorie Balazs and Chris Chidsey

Marjorie Balazs, MA '63, and chemistry professor Chris Chidsey

Catalyst Helps Launch New Chemistry Learning Lab

Spring 2011

Want to engage students in learning science? Ask Marjorie Balazs, MA '63, about the magic show she used to start a lesson when she taught high school chemistry. In one demonstration, she turned water into red wine, back to water and back to wine again. "I would really blow their minds when I then drank the wine at the end of the trick!" she recalls with a laugh. "I did not tell the students how any of the tricks were done, but said that they should be able to explain all of them before the end of the year."

Upon reflection, she describes how these demonstrations were tied to her teaching approach: "When I was a chemistry teacher, I always believed that students could love chemistry the way I did if I gave them the opportunity to experience chemistry for themselves, rather than just read about it or conduct rote experiments."

Balazs, a longtime enthusiast of chemistry and other sciences, is passing down her lifelong passion for the sciences to a new generation of curious minds through her generous support of a unique partnership between the Stanford Department of Chemistry and the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET). Called Chemistry Experiences and Experiments for Learning (ChemEX2 ), the program is a multidisciplinary collaboration designed to help high school chemistry teachers develop and integrate lab experiences that focus on core scientific ideas in ways that help students learn at greater depth. This summer, ChemEX2—which is aligned with the New Generation Science Framework—will bring together 24 high school chemistry teachers for two weeks at Stanford to learn strategies for engaging their students in the practices of both scientific inquiry and engineering design.

"What excites me about this program is the opportunity for chemistry teachers to reconnect with their passion for chemistry and learn new ways to transfer that to their students," says Balazs. After teaching high school chemistry in Colorado, Balazs won a scholarship for graduate studies at the School of Education. After working in the semiconductor industry, she became the founder of Balazs Analytical Laboratory, a Sunnyvale, California-based company known worldwide for its pioneering work in water purity and chemistry, and for its ability to solve the most difficult contamination problems in the semiconductor industry. In 1993, Balazs won the coveted SEMI Award of North America, the highest award given within the semiconductor industry to those whose technical contributions most advance the microelectronics industry.

Chemistry as a Critical Gateway for Academic Success

ChemEX2 is filling a critical need for educators working to prepare their students for college, as 10th-grade chemistry is often considered a gateway course for college admission. For California high school students, failure to pass chemistry or physics results in the students' inability to meet their A-G subject requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Furthermore, tenth grade chemistry often presents students with the first time they are asked to apply abstract and quantitative thinking to science—a critical skill that will serve them well far beyond chemistry. Indeed, the stakes are high for both students and teachers in these classrooms.

"Giving teachers the resources to continually develop their classroom practices and reinforce their mastery of the subject matter is crucial to improve the quality of science education," says Susan O’Hara, executive director of the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET). "We know that teachers want to keep learning—and that their students need them to. Through partnerships with science departments on campus like the chemistry department, we offer teachers opportunities to work side-by-side with science experts and build lessons that engage students."

Associate Professor Chris Chidsey and Senior Lecturer Jennifer Schwartz of the Department of Chemistry are grateful for the opportunity to partner with CSET in the creation of ChemEX2. Before ChemEX2 was created, Chidsey had regularly hosted science teachers to work in his research lab for the summer and more recently, he and Schwartz have hosted chemistry teachers to develop laboratory teaching materials. With the founding of ChemEX2 they wanted an opportunity to widen the impact of these efforts. "While a summer at Stanford provides a rich experience for those teachers, I was looking for a way to help more teachers integrate laboratory experiences more effectively in their classrooms," Chidsey says. CSET—with its ability to develop, deploy, and assess professional development programs for teachers—was exactly what Chidsey and Schwartz were looking for. "CSET provides the leverage to reach out to chemistry teachers on a larger scale," he says.

Launching this summer, ChemEX2 had nearly four times as many applicants as it had space available for this year. To meet the high demand, organizers hope to expand the program next summer so that 50 teachers can participate. The long-term goal is to provide a model for the professional development of science teachers that can be replicated elsewhere in California and around the nation.

Balazs is not surprised that ChemEX2 has attracted such an enthusiastic response from educators. "Anyone who is a chemistry teacher is likely to love it enough to always strive to become better at it," she says.

For more information on ChemEX2 and CSET, visit