Volunteer Takes Science Beyond Cool to Really, Really Cold

Tim Cawley shows students at Whisconier Middle School how the characteristics of matter can be controlled.

Any middle school student can read about states of matter and what happens when something is chilled to 320 degrees below zero. Thanks to Tim Cawley, students in Brookfield, Conn., can see and feel what happens.

Cawley is a Dow Product Sustainability Leader, responsible for the stewardship of about 1,500 of the company’s products. Once a year, he packs up some of the tools of his trade and heads to Brookfield’s Whisconier Middle School to spend a day demonstrating the fun side of science to sixth-graders.

“When they connect the concepts to a practical application, you see this light bulb go off in their head, and if you ever see this, it is an amazing sight to see,” Cawley said. “Sometimes you see it in a slew of children all at once when they grasp it. You can actually see it in their faces. It’s really rewarding to see that.”

Cawley performs demonstrations of supermagnetism, electricity, chemical reactions and other science concepts. One of the students’ favorites is the use of liquid nitrogen to make everyday items extremely cold (cryogenic) and observe and test how that makes materials behave differently.

“I take three balloons and blow them up, then I ask the kids how to get all three balloons into a box without altering the balloons or breaking the box. You can’t do that at room temperature. They have to make a hypothesis, then we do an experiment to test that hypothesis,” Cawley said. “The point I’m trying to get across is how to use the scientific method. There is no wrong answer in science. You make a hypothesis and you test it. By sixth grade they’ve got some of that in their education. This gives them a practical application for it. And it’s pretty visually stunning.”

Imagine a rose frozen to 320 degrees below zero, then broken into countless fragments in front of a room full of students, teachers and administrators. It’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

The school has about 250 sixth-graders, who meet with Cawley one class at a time for about 90 minutes each. He’s done it one day a year for the past 15 years or so, and has no plans to quit anytime soon. It takes all day to reach all the school’s sixth-graders, and when it’s over he is left both satisfied and drained.

“I come home and I just about pass out,” Cawley said with a chuckle. “These kids wear you out, not because they’re causing trouble, but because they have so much excitement and have such great questions. I will say things that make perfect sense to me, and they will go in an entirely different direction. It’s exhausting, but I’m telling you, there is nothing like seeing that light bulb go off.”

More satisfaction comes when Cawley hears about students who decide to pursue science and engineering after experiencing his demonstrations.

“The school can actually track it and show a substantial number of students who have gone into some type of science, directly linked to this program,” Cawley said. “That, to me, is pretty exciting.”