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Chemistry Whiz Uses Magic to Teach

By Don Branum
U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 9, 2012 – The first thing noticeable about Dr. Ron Furstenau is his apparel. One of his ties displays a bevy of chemical symbols. An American flag, a smiley face and periodic table [of elements] pins grace the lapels of his lab coat, along with a three-eyed fish on one of his pockets.

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Dr. Ron Furstenau during a chemistry magic presentation at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 21, 2012. Furstenau is an instructor with the U.S. Air Force Academy's chemistry department. U.S. Air Force photo by Don Branum

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Furstenau, a chemistry instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy here, is an enthusiastic person -- whether he's mentoring students in the academy’s chemistry labs or performing instructive magic shows for young students in the local community.

The chemistry whiz said he became interested in science during grade school.

"Even as a little kid, I liked to try to understand why things work the way they do," said Furstenau, who grew up in Norfolk, Neb. "I don't think I knew it was science at the time. I just knew it was fun."

It took him a few more years, though, to discover which area of study interested him the most.

"It was my first science class in ninth grade," he recalled. "It was physical science, but mostly chemistry. Once I got into it in high school, I really liked it."

Furstenau went on to graduate from the Air Force Academy with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry before earning a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Nebraska.

Between degrees, he served as a chemist at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and taught here. He came back to the academy after finishing his doctorate and kept teaching even after he retired from active duty in 2006. He’s been involved with the academy’s chemistry department magic show the entire time.

Furstenau performed a magic show April 21 at Colorado’s Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center as part of the park's observance of Earth Day. Children enthusiastically raised their hands every time he called for volunteers.

Those who were picked got to mix potions of all sorts, including one that switched from blue to gold seemingly in response to cheering from the audience.

The kids didn't care that it was a Briggs-Rauscher oscillating reaction or that it involved malonic acid, hydrogen peroxide and iodine. They just knew it was cool.

As they watched the beaker's liquid cycle through blue, gold and clear states, Furstenau explained the basics: the reaction that turned the solution gold also provided the ingredients needed to turn the solution blue and vice versa.

"I did my first tour here in '84," he added. "I've probably done at least 800 of them over the years."

Furstenau said he and other academy chemistry instructors have performed chemistry magic shows across the state of Colorado, mainly in the Pikes Peak region and the Denver area.

"We'll go to whoever happens to ask," he said. "As a department, we look at getting them interested in science as well as maybe getting them interested in attending the Air Force Academy."

One magic show in particular sticks out in Furstenau's mind more than any other. It was one that he performed for a child who was in the Cadet for a Day program and her family.

"She was recovering from cancer," said Furstenau, who survived prostate cancer in 2007. "There was something about the interaction with her and her family. I don't know exactly what it was, but it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

The academy’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiative for young people also offers programs for Girl Scouts, and programs to give middle and high-school teachers hands-on access to the academy's laboratories. They have instruments that measure chemical compounds in almost any way imaginable, from using radio waves and powerful magnetic fields to changing the rotation of an atomic radius, to using x-rays to shear electrons from an atom's outer layers.

"Science is really fun!" Furstenau said. "At some point, someone tells kids science is hard, and that's just not true. Yes, science is work, and it involves a lot of math, but it should always be fun."

His love of chemistry shines in his work, said Air Force Col. Mike Van Valkenburg, the head of the academy’s chemistry department.

"I've known Dr. Furstenau since 1991 when I was first assigned here to the department as a captain," Van Valkenburg said. "I've been very fortunate to observe, learn and work alongside this very brilliant educator. He communicates understanding and the 'why' of chemistry superbly to any group of captured listeners. He is no doubt one of the best chemistry educators in the country who can motivate anyone to be interested in the subject and material.”

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