The Great Pumpkin Explosion


Changing leaves, cooler temperatures, and a row of pumpkins prepared for blast-off behind the John S. Toll Science Center are typically signs of the fall season on the Washington College campus.

pumpkins in a row

If this were any normal year, chemistry students would be choosing the perfect carving pumpkins and inviting local families to witness a holiday tradition unlike any other. If past events are any indication, those jack o’lanterns lined up on the wall outside the John S. Toll Science Center would be about to get very messy.

If only the novel coronavirus could be decimated with such efficiency.

Gourd guts just aren’t as appealing virtually, so here’s what we have to look forward to next year.

The annual Exploding Pumpkins event, sponsored by Washington College’s American Chemical Society club, is a community event that celebrates science, gives undergraduates experience in safely demonstrating chemical reactions, and gets youngsters excited about the STEM fields. 

The procedure itself calls for two separate reactions—one that makes acetylene gas (C2H2) and a second that makes oxygen gas (O2). A spark ignites a combustion reaction that wipes that silly grin right off a pumpkin’s face.

“What I love so much about the event is how it brings together so many different people from our community (students, faculty, staff, families of faculty and staff, and people from the community) and gets people excited about chemistry and the fall season,” notes James Lipchock, the associate professor of chemistry who has been organizing the annual event since 2013. “While the explosions are the main event, we also try to teach people about other chemistry concepts by playing around with dry ice and pH indicators.”

Mahin Zaman ’21, a chemistry and international studies major with a minor in anthropology, has been participating in the event since her freshman year.

“Chemistry is really much more interesting than what you might see portrayed in mainstream media, and I loved seeing all the people come out to witness a practical application of chemistry,” says Mahin. "And Professor Lipchock is the reason I went into chemistry. When he graded my assignments and I did well, he would always include a handwritten note: ‘Why aren’t you a chemistry major?’ He brought that same positive energy to the classroom.”

Mahin, who serves as president of the College’s chapter of the American Chemical Society, has also enjoyed sharing her enthusiasm for chemistry with her classmates. She came up with the idea to coat the insides of glass globes with silver nitrate to create holiday ornaments, and to grow rainbow crystals as Valentine’s Day gifts.

A Douglass Cater Fellow who traveled and studied in the Philippines, Cuba, and Turkey as an undergraduate, Mahin is finishing out her senior year from home. She is completing her senior thesis on sustainability and climate change as she considers her path forward.

“I have two possible routes—working as a medical anthropologist in South Asia or Africa, or pursuing a PhD in chemical synthesis focusing on plant-based medicine,” she says. “I really loved the opportunities at WAC, and even now I’m in touch with my peers and my professors. But when things get really hard, being in nature helps a lot.”

Ready, Set, Ignition!