When I introduce myself as a Chemistry teacher, I typically get two reactions: “Oh, I failed chemistry in High School” or “I loved chemistry: I was really good at balancing equations!” My own answer would be more like “I hated chemistry but was very good at balancing equations!” What is it about chemistry, or rather about the way chemistry is traditionally taught that generates these reactions?
Piaget observed that to learn, students need to engage with the material through four stages: the concrete, semi-concrete, semi-abstract and abstract. Yet often a typical chemistry lab is at best semi-concrete and often semi-abstract.
Ira Remsen, who founded the Department of Chemistry at John Hopkins University in the late 19th century, describes this problem:
“While reading a textbook of chemistry I came upon the statement, Nitric acid acts upon copper. I was getting tired of reading such absurd stuff and I was determined to see what this meant……. I put one of the few copper cents then in my possession on the table, opened the bottle marked nitric acid, poured some of the liquid on the copper and prepared to make an observation. A green-blue liquid foamed and fumed over the cent and over the table. The air in the neighborhood of the performance became colored dark red. A great colored cloud arose. This was disagreeable and suffocating”.
The related equation is found in any chemistry textbook:
Cu(s) + 4HNO3(aq) --> Cu(NO3)2(aq) + 2NO2(g) + 2H2O(l).
But it is hard to understand from this equation that “nitric acid acts upon copper”.
My job as a chemistry teacher is to bring the students to a level of abstraction that will allow them to picture the penny, the blue green foam, and the suffocating dark red gas as they read the equation and to write the equation when they observe the reaction. I try to engage the four stages of learning in my labs. For example, in 10th Grade Inorganic Chemistry I have designed the following lab that teaches oxidation and reduction:
Concrete level: The students draw with a needle on to a zinc plate that has been covered with an acid resistant ground. When the plate is immersed in acid, the bare metal exposed by the lines of the drawing, is eroded. The depth of the ‘etch’ is controlled by the amount of time the acid is allowed to `bite’ the metal. The students then make a paper print of the design.
Semi-concrete level: The students perform a lab where they test which acid (including water) will dissolve which metals. They then refer back to their etching: What metal did they use, what acid did they use? Could they have chosen a different acid or metal? What were the bubbles they observed?
Abstract level: Students use their table to predict the results of experiments they have not performed and understand how this table can be expanded and used.
Finally, the students are asked to present their thought process in an artistic way.
Occasionally, some of my most academically inclined students complain that it is not fair to be graded on an artistic assignment in a chemistry class. However, artistic integration is important for two reasons.
First, from the point of view of the student, the artistic representation can be a great studying tool. As one student notes, “Chemistry is one of my favorite classes because even though it is a complicated subject the experiments, projects, and practical arts really do make the class easier to understand.”
Second, and most important, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, wrote that humanity needs to develop, in addition to intellectual intelligence, what he termed a “spiritual” intelligence. Artwork is that deeper level made visible by the artist to the observer. Steiner pointed to the need to balance the intellect with these other aspects of ourselves and we certainly see that need manifested in today’s students. Therefore artistic activities incorporated into intellectual ones have the potential, in addition to being a great way to study and absorb material, to allow for the possibility of this other intelligence.