MISSOULA, Mont. — Hundreds of giddy kids raced around the University of Montana Oval on a recent evening stuffing liquid nitrogen-soaked Cheetos into their mouths and laughing wildly as they exhaled the resulting white "smoke" out of their mouths and through their nostrils in big, thick puffs.
It was all part of legendary UM chemistry professor Garon Smith's final fiery lecture, as he is retiring after 24 years.
Members of the UM Honors Student Association convinced Smith to present one of his famous chemistry presentations — an hourlong spectacle of fire, ice, smoke, explosions and humor — for the benefit of the campus community. A huge crowd gathered with lawn chairs and blankets an hour before the May 7 show to watch, and Smith — who wore his famous wizard cloak and hat — did not disappoint.
"Usually, you say 'chemistry' in a conversation and everyone goes 'Whoa,' " Smith told the crowd as he mixed up one of his concoctions. "But I've been fascinated with it my whole life. I always wanted to grow up to be a wizard. Nobody told me that you couldn't be a professional wizard. So, I just had to invent a job for myself. So what I'm going to do is share with you good friends that have made for a fabulous career. So with a cart full of plastic bins, I have been all over the world. So you can be a professional wizard."
To prove he has wizardly powers, Smith first unveiled his "ink spell," where he has timed a certain mixture of chemicals so precisely that a beaker of clear fluid turns black as ink after exactly 17 seconds, right when Smith finishes saying one of his patented spells, to the delight of the audience.
"Professor Garon Smith, aka G. Wiz, is among the most engaging and entertaining instructors that the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the University of Montana have ever seen," said Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry professor and chair Christopher Palmer.
Smith has instructed about 20,000 college students in introductory chemistry, and because he travels to other schools to give presentations he has entertained and educated 100,000 younger students. Since he took over UM's chemistry course for applied science majors in 1994, class enrollment has expanded exponentially from about 400 to 700 students each fall semester. Smith vowed to accommodate every student who wanted to take his class, so he consequently estimates that 20 percent to 25 percent of all UM students have taken at least one of his courses.
"What a lot of tests to grade," he said. "But what a privilege."
Smith has won multiple local and national awards for both teaching and outreach, including 2014 Best UM Professor in the Missoulian's readership poll and the 2008 Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was also named Most Inspirational UM Teacher in 2004.
While on a six-month sabbatical last year in New Zealand, he performed his wizardry for 10,200 students as a visiting professor at the University of Otago and the University of Waikato.
Tessa Richards, one of Smith's teaching assistants and Thursday's event organizer, recalled her first chemistry course with Smith.
"G. Wiz continued to make the whole semester interesting, from blowing things up in the lecture halls to making liquid nitrogen Cheetos, some of the reactions you'll see tonight, to giving little tidbits on bomb-sniffing bumblebees to how snowflakes are formed," she said.
Smith will continue to give presentations to schools, and he is producing an educational software package and manual to help teach principles of aqueous chemistry. He is also writing a book, "G. Wiz's Book of Spells," to help teachers of all levels include live demonstrations in their classroom teaching. The book will have recipes, performance suggestions, safety precautions and explanations on how to deliver science concepts to students from kindergarten to graduate school. He will also be nominated for professor emeritus status this spring so he may stay active at UM and perhaps transform his UM courses into digital materials that can be used by other educators.
"At the same time, he has applied his knowledge and understanding of chemistry, the environment and human nature to address multiple critical environmental issues and problems in the Missoula Valley and beyond," Palmer added.
Smith has served as an ASUM adviser since 2007 and sits on the local Board of Health, the Air Pollution Control Board and the Water Quality District Board.
Smith finished his presentation with a bang Thursday, lighting off 24 artillery shells that echoed off the campus buildings to commemorate each year of his career at UM.
"It would be hard to find another professor that is as incredibly passionate about teaching as G. Wiz," Richards said. "There's something about learning from a professor that is excited about their subject. It starts to grow on you and makes you enjoy the class more and more. G. Wiz has shown countless students that chemistry can be interesting and fun. The University is losing one of the best professors it has ever known. It will be a sad day tomorrow in the Social Sciences building when he finishes his last Chem 121 lecture. But we will always remember him as the man in the wizard robe and his magic flying hat."
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com