LIVERMORE -- Three eighth-graders stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a classroom at Andrew Christensen Middle School; their eyes closed. Standing a few paces away, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory nuclear physicist Mark Stoyer tossed handfuls of miniature marshmallows, aiming for the students' open mouths.
The demonstration was just one way Stoyer and his wife Nancy Stoyer -- part of a team that discovered the new element livermorium -- helped explain the process behind the element's creation.
In Friday's class, the marshmallows represented calcium ions; the students were the curium targets the scientists bombarded.
"What you saw there is that science is messy and most of them missed their targets," Stoyer told the students. "If this bag had 1,000 marshmallows in it, I'd have to throw 6 billion bags per second for three months ... That's how hard it is to do."
During their presentation to the school's STEM II Exploration class, , the Stoyers covered all aspects of the work performed by teams in Livermore and Dubna, Russia -- from synthesizing to detecting livermorium.
The class is taught by Christensen science teacher Regina Brinker, and is part of a national Project Lead The Way program designed to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on experience.
"How many elements do you think there will eventually be?" Nancy Stoyer asked the class. "This is one of the things that our work is trying to find out."
The scientists geared their talk to students interested in engineering, showing a video of livermorium's creation, and speaking of the range of expertise that went into its discovery.
"You get a lot of signals in Dubna and Livermore, so you're checking with each other to make sure the data is high quality," said Mark Stoyer, the lab's Experimental Nuclear Physics group leader. "There was an interesting signal, and that's what we were looking for."
For the students, the talk was a fascinating firsthand look at livermorium's creation.
"They're making a new element," said 14-year-old Sam Krekling, enthusiastically. "They're spending all this money and resources to make it, and the fact that they can actually do that is really cool."
Sporting a livermorium t-shirt, 13-year-old Jonathan Weiss said he'd researched the element online, and was pleased the Stoyers answered all his questions.
"We've been talking about this for about week," Weiss said. "We all planned to wear these shirts on the same day. Everyone was really excited."
Classmate Shannon Kai, 13, said she found the chance to hear from the Stoyers "incredible," and that she was proud to have an element named after her city.
"It's a really great honor," Kai said. "Only some of the elements in the periodic table are named after certain places in the world."
Following the talk, STEM teacher Brinker said the Stoyers "made the science very understandable," and was impressed with how well her students were able to catch on.
"The kids were really engaged and paying attention," Brinker said. "Hopefully they're getting some inspiration. That's the bottom line."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184 or follow him at twitter.com/jet_bang.