Two years ago, Phil Cook filmed his first TikTok video on a whim.
While demonstrating an experiment for his chemistry class at Culver Academies, a student suggested he record it and post the footage to the popular video-sharing app.
“A girl in my class said, ‘You should put this on TikTok,’” Cook recounted, in a recent interview with IndyStar. “I said, ‘I have no idea what TikTok is.’”
While Cook was focused on safely dropping a gummy bear into a test tube with molten potassium chlorate, where it promptly burst into flames, the student recorded the experiment. Cook made an account with the username "@ChemTeacherPhil,” set the video to music and posted it.
Now, @ChemTeacherPhil - with his lab coat, glasses and 3.6 million followers - is a TikTok celebrity. He’s got more followers on the app than at least two of the Kardashian/Jenner sisters and almost as many as Noodle, the geriatric pug that may or may not have bones.
“Honestly it’s strange,” Cook said during a video interview from his classroom, sitting in front of a periodic table poster. “I’m doing what I’ve always done. It’s just now I have a social outlet.”
Cook, a native of Plymouth, Indiana, is in his 22nd year of teaching. Before TikTok, his only audience was the students in his classes. That’s all changed, he said, but his lessons haven’t.
“The stuff I do on TikTok,” he said, “I do a version of that in my class.”
Going viral on TikTok
His class is often a central feature in his videos. Cook records many of the videos in his lab and sometimes they even feature his students. He’s made paper from grass clippings, used mousetraps and ping pong balls to explain a nuclear reaction and sets many, many things on fire.
His account didn’t really take off until last summer, though. Cook said it was the peak of “pandemic time” when he struck gold with his first truly viral video.
“I got millions and millions of views,” he said. “I was not used to that at the time.”
He’s used to it now. Cook has posted dozens of videos that have received more than a million views. As he’s gotten more popular and more engaged with the app, the production quality of his videos has increased. They can take several weeks, he said, to plan, shoot and edit.
“This is completely a second job for me,” he said.
His first job - at Culver Academies - has been supportive. And Cook said most of his students think it’s pretty cool. Some younger students are even a little star-struck. His kids, though... not so much. While his older daughter thinks it’s pretty cool, Cook said his youngest isn’t as impressed.
“My youngest Is a little embarrassed to have dad that does things on TikTok,” he said. “She’s 15 and it’s not cool to have a dad on TikTok.”
Partnering with PepsiCo
Cook, though, finds it pretty cool to be getting so many new people interested in science. And he’s starting to get ad money, as companies hire him to feature their products in his experiments.
Earlier this year, Cook partnered with Benefit cosmetics to explain how the company’s magnetic mascara works (hint: it’s not magic, just science). Volkswagen called on him to explain how their new electric car works. And Cook has done several experiments using the erasable ink in Pilot pens.
His most recent project may give him his largest platform yet.
PepsiCo - maker of Pepsi, Gatorade and more - has partnered with Cook to launch its new Recycling Innovation Challenge to K-12 schools nationwide. The challenge, which launched this week, asks students to come up with creative and engaging ways to increase recycling in their schools.
To help reach those students, PepsiCo turned to Cook - someone who makes complex science fun and engaging and who already has an audience where kids are today - TikTok.
“He talks in plain terms that people can understand,” said Tom Mooradian, senior manager of environmental sustainability for PepsiCo. “That resonates for us when it comes to this because recycling can be really complex.
“We want to get some bigger ideas, but we want them to be able to be packaged in a relatively simple way so they can be shared out with a mass audience.”
The challenge kicked off earlier this week and schools have two months to submit their ideas. PepsiCo, with input from Cook, will choose a winner at the elementary, middle and high school level to receive a $5,000 prize.
What might these ideas entail? Look no further than TikTok, where Cook, naturally, celebrated the launch with a video of his own effort to get his students recycling more often. Cook placed a mini basketball hoop above the recycling bin in his class, but he didn’t stop there. Then, he built out of cardboard a candy dispenser that senses when students toss something through the hoop.
“We have to start being more thoughtful,” Cook said. “This challenge really pushes kids to think about their environment and how they can design something that really impacts it.”
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