Testing the Waters: Stage Chemistry on the Science of Water

Flying actors; giant, moving set pieces; storms of thunder, rain and lightning—what appears as onstage magic in Goodman Theatre productions is quite often science concepts at work behind the scenes. Since 2008, the Goodman’s unique Stage Chemistry program has brought high school students into the unseen technical world of the theater to explore the use of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in a theatrical setting. The Goodman’s production of An Enemy of the People offered a unique opportunity for Stage Chemistry participants because so much of the play’s story involves scientific themes, specifically the fickle relationship between humans and water. In preparation for students’ viewing of the play, Stage Chemistry teamed with Field Museum Hydrologist Katherine Moore-Powell for a series of experiments exploring the ways humans impact the natural processes of water, and how even when water seems safe, danger can hide just beneath the surface.

For the experiment “Testing the Waters,” students were divided into two groups to explore the absorption and filtration of water. In the first section, students created a filtration system to mimic the way water is naturally cleaned by sand and rocks—a system Moore-Powell noted is almost identical to the workings of a household Brita filter. Through the filtration, visibly dirty and cloudy water was cleaned, leaving clear water that appeared safe. Students recorded the visual differences between the start and end of the process and hypothesized how effective this system of filtration, and similar household filters, were in cleaning water. Simultaneously, another group of students constructed runoff systems that demonstrated water’s absorptive properties, and the dangers of pollution and contamination of rainwater runoff. First, students measured the nitrogen, pH and phosphorus levels of Chicago drinking water. Then, after pouring the water through a number of different sods and man-made fertilizers, they measured the water again to see what the water had absorbed, and noted its physical differences. The students discussed how the two experiments were related, hypothesized about how effective the filtration system would be in cleaning the water from the runoff experiment, and tested their hypotheses.

In the end, the experiments allowed students to better grasp the real life-consequences facing the community and its contaminated water supply at the center of An Enemy of the People, as well as gain an understanding of their own community’s complicated link to a natural resource they encounter every day and may take for granted.

Buy tickets and learn more about An Enemy of the People here.