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Reality TV for the chemistry set

Watch the first episode of "ChemLab Boot Camp," and find out more at http://ocw.mit.edu/bootcamp/


A brand-new reality-TV show premiered today, but this one isn't about aspiring singers or models — it's about chemistry students vying for plum research assignments.

"ChemLab Boot Camp" is produced by MIT OpenCourseWare to encourage students to go for careers in math, science and engineering. The 11-part YouTube video series follows 14 freshmen through a four-week lab course called 5.301 Chemistry Lab Techniques. The geeky grunts have to learn the ropes in the lab under the watchful eye of MIT lab instructor John Dolhun.

The kids in 5.301 have to cope with broken test tubes, spoiled experiments and the challenges of recrystallization. They also revel in the high jinks occasionally orchestrated by Dolhun, including a trick that turns potassium iodide, hydrogen peroxide and dish soap into an erupting volcano of pink foam. The students who pass the course are guaranteed a job in an MIT research lab. The students who fail ... well, is there anything worse for a geek than having the world find out about that on YouTube?


In the first episode, we get to know some of the freshmen, including a serious rap-music fan and kids who like to cover the walls with equations. MIT promises that future installments will show the rise of "Survivor"-style alliances and rivalries, and even the hint of romance. Just like "Survivor," the outcome of the finale is being kept under wraps, even though the show was filmed in January. You'll have to follow every weekly installment to find out how it all turns out.

"We shot at least 100 hours of footage to get what is the finished hour or so of material," Steve Carson, the external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare, told me today.

The series was produced and directed by former MIT student George Zaidan, who used animations and video diaries to bring the lab culture to life. "I wanted to show that scientists are people — they have relationships like normal people, they make mistakes like normal people," Zaidan said in a behind-the-scenes preview. "A big part of the show is just showing who they are."

The show is part of a broader effort at MIT, funded by the Dow Chemical Co. to encourage interest in science and engineering careers. That means the videos may have to tread a careful line between boring the viewer and sensationalizing the science (which is an issue "Survivor" doesn't have to worry about).

Carson said "ChemLab Boot Camp" makes the grade. 

"What the show does as a whole is to make the idea of working in a lab accessible," he said. "For most high-school students, what goes on in a lab is a mystery. You see all this strange equipment, and people doing strange things. The show incorporates really great animations that explain the chemical reaction going on. ... There's the possibility of failure at every turn, and there's a natural drama associated with that."

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.