Hanging up the lab coat

WEIRTON – Pete Karpyk is hanging up the goggles.

“It’s been a great run,” said Karpyk. “I’ll miss the kids, I’ll miss teaching.”

A chemistry teacher at Weir High School for more than 35 years, Karpyk is best known to generations of Weirton-area students for his hands-on approach to science, including – perhaps most famously – exploding pumpkins and bi-annual visits to Weirton-area elementary schools to encourage interest and appreciation of science in elementary-age students through interactive science experiments. He and his students spent Thursday at Broadview Elementary School.

“The kids here are really excited,” said Karpyk. “They’re having an event (student-led conferences) with their parents here tonight, and they can’t wait to show some of this stuff to their parents.”

The experiments are conducted by teams of Karpyk’s high school chemistry students, many of whom remember doing similar experiments when they were younger.

“They’re doing a great job,” Karpyk beamed. “I’m so proud of these kids. I’m so proud – they’re doing an incredible job.”

The high school students visited several classrooms, using experiments such as “bloody handprints” to demonstrate acid indicators and “slime” to demonstrate polymer chains and cross-linkage. Other activities include observing how many times a water-filled bag can be pierced with pencils, ghost crystals and Cartesian divers.

“Many of my students remember when they did the experiments as first-graders,” said Karpyk. “They’re excited to come back and show the younger children what they remember.”

Several students took a shaving-cream “pie” to the face to demonstrate the importance of wearing safety equipment during labs. The high school students are divided into teams, each with a leader, and lead the experiments themselves.

“The group leaders are in charge of making sure everyone gets here and all the supplies get here,” said Karpyk. “They do a lot of organization.”

In order to be able to fluently explain the material, the students must know it well themselves first, and the exercise gives them a unique perspective – that of a teacher.

“They get a little look at being a teacher, and it helps reinforce the material,” Karpyk said.

Karpyk said he didn’t yet know the fate of the program, which he has been running for approximately 30 years.

“I don’t know, but I hope they keep it up,” he said. “It’s a good program.”

Over the years, the program has grown and changed. It once included the middle and high schools, but through trial and error, Karpyk realized the experience was best tailored to the younger children, encouraging their interest in science and showing how applying science to the everyday can be fun.

His work has been featured in “USA Today” and “The Science Teacher,” along with the textbook “Child Development” by John W. Santrock. Karpyk was recognized as an educator-innovator by PBS in 2010.

“I’m going to miss this a lot,” he said. “I’m going to miss teaching it.”

He’ll have plenty of memories, as an avid photographer and videographer, Karpyk has documented many of the visits, which he uses as training materials for later groups.

Karpyk said he didn’t have a retirement plan yet, but he would like to join the American Chemical Society’s Pittsburgh Chapter and attend a few of its meetings.

“The first plan is to make a plan,” he said. “Maybe I will still do something with chemistry.”

He won’t leave Weir High without a parting gift – he recently received a $900 grant from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh for the purchase of a Flinn Scientific Spectrophotometer, which will be used in the chemistry, biology and environmental science classes.

“It’s been a good ride,” said Karpyk.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at swallace@pafocus.com)