On Friday morning, Sean Gottlieb, assistant professor of chemistry at Hancock College, demonstrated the power of chemical reactions by melting a gummy bear.

After liquefying a chunk of potassium chlorate with a blowtorch, Gottlieb added the 2-centimeter mixture of gelatin, sugar and green food coloring. It flailed and thrashed in the test tube before completely disintegrating into the mixture.

"In that tube, what we saw was the release of energy from just one gummy bear," he told the group of Solvang Elementary students watching from a cordoned-off area several feet in front of him. "You can maybe imagine why your parents would not want you to eat a whole bag of gummy bears at one time. It's a lot of energy."

One of 16 interactive workshops held during Hancock College's "3E Bulldog Bound: Elementary Exploration Event," Gottlieb made chemistry accessible and digestible for the more than 500 Santa Maria, Solvang and Cuyama-area elementary students — the largest group to date — who flocked to the campus for a morning of demonstrations and hands-on learning.

The first step of the college's four-phase Hancock Promise program, program coordinator Marna Lombardi said Bulldog Bound strengthens Hancock's connections between elementary-aged students and their families as a way of promoting a "college-going culture" in the local community. First held in October 2017, Lombardi estimates that nearly 13,000 fifth- to eighth-grade students have participated in the program since its inception. 

"This is more than just having fifth- and sixth-grade students here," she said. "We want to introduce everyone to what [Hancock College] has to offer." 

In addition to helping Gottlieb with his experiments, Jennifer Pederson, a fifth-grade teacher at Solvang Elementary, spent the morning shadowing her students at film production, photography and agriculture workshops. A first-time Bulldog Bound attendee, Pederson said her class jumped at the opportunity to sign up.

"This is good to let them know that [college] is a whole different structure than elementary school," she said. "A lot of students at the elementary and junior high level don't know it's different — they don't know there's exciting classes ... and that they can focus on [subjects] they enjoy."

Lombardi said students and teachers are receptive to the format of the program, and added the college is committed to ensuring its continued success.

"We would do traditional career fairs, but what we found is that the students weren't as engaged," she said. "We needed to bring them on our campus so they could experience it themselves."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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