Chemistry and Art? An unusual but winning combination for student engagement

 Ann Larson Ericson

by Ann Larson Ericson

For Middle Level

When I tell adults that I teach high school chemistry, the response I most often hear is, "I never liked chemistry. Learning all those formulas and memorizing that big table ... how can you teach that?!"

I think about those comments. How can I teach chemistry in a way that students will leave my class feeling that they actually like chemistry, and want to learn more? How can I make the subject relevant and fun and content-rich?

Here is a Developmental Designs-inspired idea that makes a big difference in student engagement in my class.

I love to integrate art projects into the science curriculum. When we begin studying the Periodic Table of the Elements, I have students research a chemical element of their choice and produce a booklet full of clues that help identify their element. They enjoy writing cryptic clues that eventually lead to the identity of their element. They love using their artistic skills to show properties of their elements. They love being creative and original and, most important, successful. For my part, I love seeing a reluctant learner fully engaged in a chemistry project.

And there is a lot of learning going on. Through their research, most students learn far more about their element than they would from a lecture or textbook assignment. They learn vocabulary words and chemical concepts on their own in a relevant context, and it sticks with them.

I also love what I learn about my students from these projects. I learn about talents they have that may not have been evident on tests and worksheets and lab reports. I learn about their creativity, persistence, and pride in their abilities.

Long after the projects are completed, students talk about "their element." They have taken ownership of chemistry! A student returned three years after graduating, looked at the Periodic Table in my room and said, "Potassium! That's my element! It's in bananas! Do you remember the project I did?" She may not remember all the formulas she learned at the time, but she learned that chemistry is relevant to her and can be fun. She left her chemistry class knowing that she could understand and do chemistry.

Try bringing art or drama or movement into your subject area and see how the kids respond. Share your ideas  with us, so this whole community of teachers can learn.


Ann Larson Ericson has been using the Developmental Designs approach in her classroom for more than eight years. She teaches high school chemistry and physical science at Community of Peace Academy, a public charter school on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Posted August 2013

Read more posts from the Developmental Designs blog.