Chemistry instructor brings magic of science to students, teachers

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The first thing you might notice about Dr. Ron Furstenau is his apparel: one of his ties contains chemical symbols for carbon, nitrogen, neon, even ununseptium. American flag, Air Force, smiley face and periodic table pins grace the lapels of his lab coat, along with a three-eyed fish on one of his coat pockets.

The second thing -- and this you will definitely notice -- is his enthusiasm, whether he's walking you through the chemistry labs or getting you to break a flower with a clap of your hands. Furstenau performs dozens of chemistry magic shows each year, but there's no sign that his energetic manner will ever undergo radioactive decay.

Furstenau grew up in Norfolk, Neb. He first 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," he said. "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 liked chemistry so much that he majored in it after he entered the Air Force Academy in 1975. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, then went on to earn his master's degree from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln in 1984 and his doctorate in 1990.

Between degrees, Furstenau served as a chemist at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and taught here. He came back to the Academy after finishing his PhD and kept teaching even after he retired from active duty in 2006. He's been involved with the Chemistry Department's magic show the entire time.

Furstenau performed a show Saturday for around 100 people at the 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.

Furstenau didn't overwhelm his audience with details. The kids didn't care that it was a Briggs-Rauscher oscillating reaction or that it involved malonic acid, hydrogen peroxide and iodine. They 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 that turned the solution gold also provided the ingredients needed to turn the solution blue and vice versa.

The Chemistry Department first started its chemistry magic shows in the early '60s, Furstenau said.

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

He and other Chemistry Department instructors have performed shows across the state of Colorado, mainly in the Pikes Peak region and the Denver area, he said.

"We'll go to whoever happens to ask," he added. "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 about a year ago 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 STEM Research Center also offers programs for Girl Scouts, including the well-known Bungee Barbie experiments, and programs to give middle- and high-school teachers hands-on access to the Academy's laboratories. Within those laboratories sit instruments that can measure chemical compounds in almost any way imaginable, from using radio waves and powerful magnetic fields to change 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 Col. Mike Van Valkenburg, the Chemistry Department head.

"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."