Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Experiments find an audience
January 29, 2020

In the universe of TikTok stardom, Culver Academies chemistry instructor Phil Cook can’t compete with Charli D’Amelio. But he is in the same league as Reese Witherspoon.

TikTok is a video platform that allows people to upload videos from 15 seconds to one minute in length. D’Amelio is considered the queen of TikTok for her dance routines. She has an astronomical 20 million followers and more than 700 videos. Actor Witherspoon, with one million followers, is among a growing list of celebrities starting to use the platform.

As @chemteacherphil, Cook has amassed more than 952,000 followers in just five months with some of his videos racking up more than a million views. His polymerization experiment has been viewed over 12.9 million times and has received 8,788 comments.

And Cook was recently named “TikTok’s favorite chemistry teacher” by TheVerge.com. TikTok has given him the blue checkmark of a “certified creator” and a representative has talked with him briefly, but Cook isn’t sure what impact that has. “I think they are still trying to figure it all out,” he said.

It’s not exactly the place he anticipated being, and he really doesn’t care that much about it. But Cook is riding his popularity on the platform to spread the word about how cool chemistry, and science in general, can be.

It would not have happened if it weren’t for junior Valeria Prida-Seifer (Laredo, Texas), who said Cook should post a Friday in-class demonstration he was doing on TikTok. He decided to set up an account, gave Prida-Seifer his smartphone and she made a video of the experiment.

Called the “gummy bear sacrifice,” the experiment involved dropping a gummy bear into a test tube of potassium chlorate. Adding the sugar to the chemical creates a contained explosion. Cook uploaded the video that day and forgot about it. On Monday, though, his excited students rushed in to class and told him he was “blowing up” on the platform.

The video had 50,000 views and Cook’s TikTok account had amassed 10,000 followers in just over two days. That far eclipsed the 1,830 subscribers on his YouTube channel, he said. While he had hundreds of comments on how great the experiment was, Cook also read several that were asking “real science” questions. He answered those, hoping to spur the students’ interest.

The response has also prompted him to continue posting his experiments on TikTok. He now has 70 videos on the platform. In each video, he makes sure to wear his protective glasses and lab coat. Many of experiments are done in the fume hood (in photo) with the protective glass closed. It is a signal to everyone watching that safety must be ever-present when it comes to chemistry experiments.

Cook understands his fame probably is fleeting (Anyone remember Vine?). He still hasn’t figured out the TikTok algorithms, but he is not concerned. As long as he has some young viewers asking him “real science” questions in their comments, he will continue to post them.

After all, that’s Cook’s goal – to reach and teach students – using every method possible.

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