UCLA’s 2020 Exploring Your Universe

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Chemistry & Biochemistry faculty, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads helped make Exploring Your Universe (EYU) on November 1, 2020, a huge success.

Exploring Your Universe (EYU) is one of UCLA’s biggest annual events, drawing in thousands of children, parents, and friends from the Los Angeles community to our campus on the first Sunday of November. Organized by UCLA graduate students and run by volunteers, this science fair has been a tradition to provide a day of free science education to all. Since its inception in 2009, EYU has provided fun, hands-on experiments and presentations to curious minds and young future scientists alike.  

In 2020, the event was held virtually because of the COVID19 pandemic, giving visitors from all over the world the opportunity to take part in guided, do-it-yourself science experiments while engaging with scientists on a wide range of subjects. The EYU website listed easy-to-obtain supplies so that attendees could gather them in advance before participating in experiments during the festival.

For the first time, the event included a bilingual Q&A session, giving the audience a chance to speak in Spanish with UCLA Chemistry & Biochemistry professors Jose Rodriguez and Miguel García-Garibay, UCLA’s Dean of Physical Sciences.

Also speaking at the event were Chemistry & Biochemistry professors Richard Kaner, Hosea Nelson, Sarah Tolbert, and Paul Weiss and graduate student MacKenzie Anderson. 

GhezAfter UCLA Chancellor Gene Block welcomed attendees, García-Garibay presented the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences’ Science and Education Pioneer Award to Professor Andrea Ghez. Ghez, the 2020 Nobel laureate in physics and UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, delivered the festival’s keynote address, focusing on her research about black holes. The award, established by the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences in 2017 and presented yearly at the EYU, recognizes individuals who have demonstrated a stellar commitment to empowering the public – especially children – to pursue education and success in the sciences. 

Several chemistry & biochemistry student groups, individuals, and labs hosted fun interactive virtual booths for children and their parents, which are described below.

Student Members of the American Chemical Society (SMACS)

At their “Chemistry in the Kitchen!” booth, the Student Members of the American Chemical Society (SMACS) offered three separate experiments for participants to follow along with. The booth based their experiments on materials commonly found in the kitchen and did live demos of oobleck, colored milk, and chromatography. Their Oobleck lab explored non-Newtonian fluids with mixtures of water and cornstarch. In their colored milk lab, members added dish soap to plates of milk to show the unique properties of soap on fat and water. Finally, viewers played ‘dye’tective and investigated which color pigments made up marker ink with coffee filters and water.

“EYU is one of my favorite events at UCLA and I was so happy to hear that the event wasn’t canceled,” said SMACS, Service Chair 2020 Laurie Tan. “It was different leading the booth on a virtual platform, I definitely missed seeing the kids in person and seeing all of their faces during the experiments. However, we received a lot of responses in the booth chat and some kids even turned on their camera to follow along! I’m really grateful for our amazing volunteers, participants, and booth leaders who made this event feel a lot more personal even though we’re all in different places.”

SMACS Montage

(Left) At the SMACS Chromatography booth, member Tracie Luu (bottom) showed the audience the separated marker pigments on coffee filters while fellow member Nina Le (top) moderated online discussion. (Upper right) SMACS President Luke Elissiry (top left) and member Akash Jain (top right) led the club’s Colored Milk booth and demonstrated the unique properties of soap with this colorful experiment. (Lower right) In the SMACS Oobleck booth, participants learned how to make their own non-Newtonian fluids from Vice President Jason Wu (top right). SMACS secretary Gregory Gorobets (bottom right) and members Sophia Westerkamp (top left) and Jordan Tatang (bottom left) helped explain the science behind the experiment and encouraged viewers to participate in the discussion.

Alpha Chi Sigma (AXS)

UCLA’s chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma (AXS) presented a pre-recorded demonstration of an Elephant Toothpaste Reaction, which is a chemical reaction, which produces large quantities of bubbly foam. This rapid exothermic creation of gas, once made, gets trapped in a foam that expands outward. Using dry yeast, hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, and food coloring, viewers were shown how to make their own Elephant Toothpaste Reaction at home. The second experiment involved creating an at home pH indicator using purple cabbage, water, baking soda, and white vinegar. Viewers were shown how to create a solution that changed color based on the presence of either an acid or a base.  “It was a delightful experience and even though it was online, the event staff ran it beautifully, and I can’t wait to volunteer for EYU’s next great event,” said AXS President Chad Cribbs. 

AXE Photo Montage

In their video, Alpha Chi Sigma members demonstrate the Elephant Toothpaste Reaction.

Chemistry and Biochemistry Graduate Student Association (CBGSA)

The Chemistry and Biochemistry Graduate Student Association (CBGSA) brought fun, scientific demonstrations to be enjoyed by children and parents of all ages. After visiting their booth, participants learned crystallization techniques to form crystals through the “Borax Crystallization” and how simple concepts of mixtures and states of matter can allow safe, household items to be utilized to make their own “Quicksand” Play-doh. Participants also had the opportunity to get their hands dirty for the “Milk Art” demonstration where they created their own colorful art with food coloring, whole milk, and dish soap. CBGSA members also demonstrated how to make a “Homemade Lava Lamp” and how to do a “Chemiluminescence Experiment” using Luminol, which requires adult supervision and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).  


At the CBGSA booth – Milk Art, Borax Crystallization, and Quicksand Play-doh.

Color, Optics, and Fluorescence Lab

Professor Ellen Sletten and her group hosted the “Color, Optics, and Fluorescence Lab” at which they explored what is in a color, light refraction through water, and fluorescence of household items. Activities included experiments that viewers could follow along with such as playing with bubbles, diffraction of light through water with a reversing arrow trick and swedish fishing. Other demonstrations included fluorescence and lasers. 

In their video, Sletten group member graduate student Kelly Wong demonstrates the reversing arrow trick.

Chemistry & Biochemistry Graduate Student Association (gBSA) 

The graduate Biochemistry Student Association (gBSA), with volunteers from the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department, hosted their “DNA Extraction Lab” as a virtual booth this year. Visitors to the virtual booth learned about the importance of DNA and its use in creating new medicines, designing better crops, and solving crimes. Viewers learned how to extract DNA from strawberries by smashing strawberries in a bag, adding ‘extraction liquid’ of salty soap to break open strawberry cells, filtering out debris through a strainer, and finally precipitating out DNA using rubbing alcohol. Participants further learned about other possible fruits to utilize in their households. gBSA was awarded funds for materials by the EYU committee and additional supplies were provided by the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.  

GBSA Montage
(Left) gBSA members Joseph Ong, Natalie Schibrowsky, Cameron Movassaghi, and Kyle Meador guide two families with the experiments. (Upper right) Hannah Bailey stars in gBSA’s troubleshooting video and (lower right) Nicole Lynn stars in gBSA’s DNA extraction video. gBSA booth organizers and volunteers not pictured are Jenny Ngo, Alexander Stevens, Ana Bulger, and Megan Cao.

UCLA Chapter of the Electrochemical Society (ECS)

At their “Fun with Batteries” booth, members of the UCLA Chapter of the Electrochemical Society (ECS) presented videos of several demos about batteries and electrochemistry. These included making a battery with pennies and foil (view demo), freezing a battery (view demo), using graphite to light a light bulb (view demo), making a superhydrophilic surface, and making a brass penny. Along with teaching how all these work, they gave a brief discussion about some research avenues with electrochemistry.  Click here to view the video of the ECS “Fun with Batteries” demo.

Battery Image

From the UCLA Chapter of the Electrochemical Society’s video – freezing a battery and making a battery from pennies.

Nano: The Big Science of Small Stuff!

Graduate students and postdocs from across the sciences and engineering, including many volunteers from the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, teamed up with the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) to present nanoscience demos from the CNSI Education program. Presenters showcased a variety of cool nano-based phenomena from many different STEM areas, including a few that viewers could try at home. The diverse topics offerings included how plants control water on their surfaces, why water-based life has structure, how viruses assemble, magnetic liquids, how nanotech will revolutionize clean energy, and the beauty of structural color.

CNSI Nano Booth

Graduate students Dominick Witkowski and Liv Heidenreich at the CNSI Education program booth.


Exploring Your Universe is made possible by the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences; the Mani L. Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics; the Campus Programs Committee of the UCLA Program Activities Board; the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences; the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy; the UCLA Galactic Center Group; and the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.

Many thanks to the following people who provided photos, videos and/or booth descriptions: Chad Cribbs (AXS), Edris Rivera (CBGSA), Dr. Rita Blaik and Prof. Sarah Tolbert (CNSI), Andrew Dawson (ECS), Jennifer Ngo (gBSA), Prof. Ellen Sletten and Rachel Day (Sletten Group), Laurie Tan (SMACS), Lisa Garibay (UCLA Division of Physical Sciences).

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.