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Girls Inc. EUREKA! 

Dr. Lara Al-Hariri, UMass Chemistry, developed the workshop “Explore Fun Chemical Reactions: Making Soap” to encourage girls in the Eureka! program to be excited about chemistry. Dr. Al-Hariri, in collaboration with Dr. Mingxu You and Dr. Ruthanne Paradise, has been offering this workshop for the last three summers. Eureka! is an outreach program at UMass Amherst in partnership with Girls Inc. of Holyoke. The program aims to address the gender gap in the field of STEM through motivating and empowering girls through a hands-on series of workshops. It is crucial for the girls to see women in science leading these workshops, and be a role model for them.

The workshop is designed to teach the girls skills and chemical concepts by making soap. They perform an organic chemistry reaction (the hydrolysis of an ester) that keeps them engaged by preparing an item they use daily (soap). During the workshop, the girls learn about the pH scale, the appropriate range of pH for soap, the soap foam level, and its relationship to the hardness of water — the basics of how soap works.

The sixteen Eureka Scholars “Rookies,” rising 8th-grade girls, used the analytical laboratory in ISB and their first check was with Dr. Paradise to ensure they were wearing proper safety attire. Dr. Al-Hariri gave them a short overview of the experiment, explaining how they would convert coconut oil into soap through a chemical reaction called saponification.  She showed them a prepared sample of a soap bar and discussed how they could customize their soap by choosing the fragrances, colorant, and mold shape. Their faces bloomed with excitement. The girls were then provided with a detailed procedure and the three instructors began to guide them through the process.

Twenty minutes into the workshop, the girls added the concentrated sodium hydroxide to the coconut oil and the reaction began. While waiting for the reaction to complete, Dr. You introduced them to the pH scale and showed them the pH of items they are familiar with (milk, drain cleaner, and battery acid) through a simulation. They put that knowledge into practice at the end of the workshop to decide if their soap is usable. They also learned about how soap works through an activity in which they use a rope (carbon long-chain/ hydrophobic) and balloon (COO-/ hydrophilic) as models of a soap molecule to form a micelle. The girls learned and understood the hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts of the soap and their contribution to how soap works.


Dr. Al-Hariri says, “It is amazing when they ask with excitement when they will be able to retrieve their soap bars and take pictures to let their friends on social media know that they made soap.”

This summer, the workshop will be offered as a two-day workshop to provide the girls more time to enjoy all the activities.


Dr. Al-Hariri says, “Eureka gives me a unique opportunity to be in contact with this age group and help them get excited about science. I want girls to know that science is the field for them through this hands-on, fun science experiment.”

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