Explosive chemistry: Poutsma happy to be at W&M

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J.C. Poutsma still giggles when he talks about "ka-booms." For the past 10 years, he has captivated students of introductory chemistry courses, as well as the William & Mary community-at-large, with demonstrations of exploding gas-filled balloons, with "potato guns" and with his ever-popular thermite explosion. His is a giggle that exposes a lifelong delight.

Recently he treated students in chemistry 103—a general chemistry class for non-majors—to the thermite explosion, a chemical reaction that gives off enough heat to melt iron. It is one of approximately 30 demonstrations that Poutsma conducts during the 40-lecture course. The fact that he conducted the experiment on the College’s Barksdale Field made sure there were more than a handful of inquisitive onlookers.

"I try to use demos in class that illustrate things we are talking about and not just demos that are fun. Some of them are fun, and that’s OK, too," he said. Such demonstrations move chemistry from the letters and numbers written on a board into the realm of real science, he added.

Poutsma flinches when he considers the negative light in which chemistry often is presented. He chose the field because he considers understanding of chemistry a valuable force for good in the world. "The world is made of chemicals, so the concept of a chemical-free fertilizer is a little out there," he explained with a shrug.

He calls himself lucky in that he is living the life he envisioned for himself when he was 19 years old. The fact that William & Mary had an opening when he was applying for a teaching position was, likewise, fortuitous. He had wanted to come to a liberal arts college that was small enough to allow him to inspire students in laboratories and in classrooms. At the same time, he sought a university that was large enough to let him perform his own research.

William & Mary, he said, is the perfect fit.