This professor is using TikTok to make 'boring' science exciting, and she's drawing millions to watch

·6 min read

NAPLES, Fla. — From Masters and Johnson, we learned "The Joy of Sex."

From Irma Rombauer, we savored "The Joy of Cooking."

With Kim Hilton, we are diving into "The Joy of Chemistry."

Chemical Kim, as the FSW Naples professor is known to nearly a million TikTok viewers, wants us to enjoy the plunge. She admits she's a sucker for science: "I think about it all the time."

"For my kids it was always, 'Oh, here's another science lesson.' That's just me," conceded Hilton, with the cherubic beam familiar to TikTok viewers around the world. Her videos demonstrate the magic chemistry can create in her audience's daily lives, and Hilton clearly loves doing it.

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Kim Hilton, a TikTok influencer who goes by "Chemical Kim" on social media, shows off a recent experiment she did for a video at Florida SouthWestern State College-Collier Campus in Naples, Fla., on Aug. 31, 2021.
Kim Hilton, a TikTok influencer who goes by "Chemical Kim" on social media, shows off a recent experiment she did for a video at Florida SouthWestern State College-Collier Campus in Naples, Fla., on Aug. 31, 2021.

She cheerfully demonstrates the simple science behind Dippin' Dots: liquid nitrogen applied to melted ice cream, sending it skittering into tiny balls. Hilton extracts the innards of a soft drink can to show that —whoa! — we're not drinking from aluminum at all. The drink is held inside a plastic lining meant to shield the metal from your Coke's acidic properties.

Hilton took broadcast background to TikTok

Hilton is no stranger to science broadcasts. Before she and her family moved to Naples, she was the scientist in residence for WZZM-13's ABC broadcasts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and hosted a public access show before that.

So during the pandemic, when she could not teach Introduction to Chemistry and General Chemistry or produce programs for local schools, Hilton took her infectious enthusiasm for science to the internet. That created a virtual compounding of carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen, and nitrogen — in short, she set TikTok ablaze.

TikTok, monitoring her soaring popularity, added her to the organization for TikTok influencers known as its Creators Fund.

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That was one pinnacle for Hilton, because the Fund grants its members some money, which Hilton says she plows back into science education. But also important was its access to other creative minds on TikTok channels. Regular roundtables offer an exchange of video tips and tricks.

Hilton recalls getting a jolt from some of the work her fellow influencers do.

"Other creators have really opened my eyes with the idea that new videos should be daily, that I really should be putting a video almost every day. To me that’s excessive," she declared.

"If I can put up two really good videos a week, that’s good content. I won't give trash videos by doing seven or even five a week."

TikTok, she emphasized, isn't her fulltime job, even though it could deluge her. As she is being interviewed, she checks the number of responses to a video she had just uploaded the day before: 427 comments.

Her rule: "I do take time in my day that’s not going to take time away from my students, take time away from my research or take time away from my family to focus on responding to my viewers."

Add exercise to that; Hilton keeps her willow physique with runs and gym work.

Fame means opportunities, responsibilities

Her newly international fame has brought her offers. The Chicago Bulls flew her to the Windy City to present an everyday science segment with Benny the Bull, its mascot, for a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser. She will also be on an upcoming episode of the children's program "Mission Unstoppable."

Kim Hilton, a TikTok influencer who goes by "Chemical Kim" on social media, shows off strings of edible alginate polymer made with sodium alginate after filming a TikTok video at Florida SouthWestern State College-Collier Campus in Naples, Fla., on Aug. 31, 2021.
Kim Hilton, a TikTok influencer who goes by "Chemical Kim" on social media, shows off strings of edible alginate polymer made with sodium alginate after filming a TikTok video at Florida SouthWestern State College-Collier Campus in Naples, Fla., on Aug. 31, 2021.

Companies call, too, offering an onstage segment at their conferences.

That has brought Hilton to something of a fork in the road. Doing only two experiments a week becomes costly, even with Creators Fund help. She waves a blue-gloved hand toward shelfful of gizmos in the Lely campus science building lab.

"Literally all my science toys over there — every one of those — I paid for out of my own pocket. We’ll pay for things to bring because we’re passionate about something we love," she said. It is a dilemma for teachers: "We give away so much for free."

So she's mulling the idea of a sponsorship or patron viewership. It would possibly bring in the funds to allow her a live session in New York at Felicity House, a residence for women with autism. Now, she is only working with them via Zoom.

Live science, in fact, is what Hilton is most ardent about. The students deemed least likely to care about it are the ones she is most excited about teaching.

"All my experience in teaching and working with other professors is that we teach like we’re expecting these 'introduction to chemistry' people all to become chemists," she lamented.

"It’s presented to them in a way that doesn’t connect to their everyday life. It’s not very hand-on in their learning. It’s just a lot of memorization, math calculations and problem solving which is important in chemistry absolutely," she said. But all that needs to come from a reason.

Science comes from every culture

Her goals for chemistry education: To make it work for everyday life. To make it inclusive.

"Especially, from a scientific standpoint, I hope to bring them things they see every day, that they encounter every day. It builds so that they are more knowledgeable as consumers, as a patient in a hospital, in all things that matter to them," she said.

A Chemical Kim example of everyday chemistry at work: Getting to know sodium alginate, which can jell a sauce for special effect in restaurant cuisine. Or which may be a cheap substitute for those pimientos you thought were stuffed into the olives you just bought.

Making science inclusive is one of the causes that drew Hilton to Southwest Florida. She wanted to teach the diversity of scientific discoveries, she said, and knows those can resonate with diverse classrooms such as Naples offers.

"If you look at the scientists we have in science texts, a lot of them look like they’re European descent, and definitely more in the male population. That doesn’t mean men from one area of the world grew science," she said.

Hilton also uses examples from her students' culture in her classes. One brought in, at her request, the mash left after his mother made tortillas. He and Hilton transformed it into a bioplastic — a biodegradable material recycled from what would normally be wasted.

Hilton also has been aware of her status as a public face in LGBTQ+ issues. She served as the LGBTQ Pride co-chair in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and feels her public work here can improve LGBTQ visibility in STEM education.

As with all her other goals, Hilton's aim is to be affirming. She's particularly proud of one LGBTQ+ viewer's message to her: "I never really felt comfortable before. You make me feel comfortable."

She would also hope her viewer is smarter. If there's an overarching mission for Hilton's work, she said, it's to "create content that hopefully inspires anyone — not just kids — to question about the world they live in and to see that science helps you find the answers.

"It doesn’t necessarily give you the answers, but helps you find them. It gives you the resources."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: TikTok chemistry teacher Chemical Kim teaches everyday science online