• Emily Rose Seeber

Chemistry, an Artistic Genealogy


There has been an exponential rise in the number of times I have heard the phrase "from STEM to STEAM" over the last year. We, as educators, are more focused than ever on our responsibility to nurture the innovators of the future. We are tasked with ensuring that our students have the mental toolkits to change the world.

I have just been inspired to write this blog by reading Keith Budge's (my current Headmaster) post for the HMC about the importance of the Arts to the development of great scientists, engineers, and innovators. His key message was that we should not sacrifice the broader curriculum for a focus on STEM (despite the massive talent shortages in these areas), because without them, the sciences and maths are less rich as academic subjects in themselves.

I broadly agree with this view. I believe that great scientists are hugely creative thinkers: they design, model, visualise. All skills that they will learn in Art and Design at school. However, I think we should not underestimate the potential for Chemistry as an artistic endeavour.

A design inspired by the structure of boric acid.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain took place. Crystallography was a fairly recent phenomenon, and the early crystallographic structures were used as inspiration for textile designs, and ceramics patters. At an atomic level, the universe is extremely aesthetically pleasing. I have actually done a cross-curricular project on this in my second year of teaching. Students chose a crystallography image to use as their foundation, which they then needed to turn into a print. I had textiles teachers in my lesson helping students with planning how they would do the printing of their chosen colour scheme, while I moved among the students discussing the arrangement of particles. Recently the head of fashion and textiles at Bedales got in contact with me about organising a collaborative project and I am envisaging an armchair upholstered with crystallography inspired print in the school reception...

A design inspired by the structure of haemoglobin.

As to the more usual ways that I think that the arts are intrinsically entwined with chemistry teaching, not just as a special project, I am going to give three examples (of which there could be many, many more):

  • Organic mechanisms as art

  • Designing practicals

  • Modifying and redesigning methods when the unexpected happens

I am an organic chemist by specialism, and I encourage my students to tune into their aesthetic sensibilities when they draw organic mechanisms. A badly drawn mechanism, with an arrow going the wrong way, or a carbon with too many bonds around it, should look wrong. the mechanisms becomes ugly. This seems to be something that students do start to appreciate as they get towards the end of their A-level studies, but the artistic sense of the designs and patterns on the page should, and I strongly believe does, compliment the chemical sense, the explanations in terms of electrostatic forces, supplementing and supporting it. If students can master the aesthetics of organic chemistry, then a mistaken mechanism in an exam just screams at them; "there is a mistake here!", "I don't look right".

Planning practicals is a standard aspect of Chemistry teaching. But the word 'plan' itself is just so uninspiring. A quick Google search tells me that the etymology of the word 'plan' lies in plan drawings: a map, or blueprint of the method, if you will. No sense of thinking for one's self. When we generally set students planning tasks in Chemistry what we are really asking them to do is 'design' a plan. They need to come up with the blueprint for how they are going to do the practical (the plan), but coming up with it is about innovation, it is about design. The word 'design' appears to derive from the Latin designare which means to mark out, designate, decide. Here there is suddenly an aspect of thought: the student needs to make decisions about the best way to approach the task, they are marking out their own blueprint. As Chemistry teachers, let's get away from 'planning' tasks, let's call them what they really are: design tasks.

No matter how good the blueprint is, no matter how well planned, when actually doing practical tasks, things often don't go to plan. Learning Chemistry teaches students to respond to these situations creatively. I have seen students recognise that their results are not great in quality and make really innovative modifications to their plan (either standard plan, or one they have designed). This modification, this re-design: this is as close to innovative thinking as many students will get in a school environment (unless they take Design, of course!). In Chemistry when student do this, they are combining their practical, intuitive, problem-solving skills, with complex and deep, abstract theory about the reaction they are working on. And this is what we are expecting the innovators of the future to be able to do: we want to nurture students who can combine the cutting-edge and the common-sense.

There are many other of areas of Chemistry which are beautiful to me: I find the mathematics visually stimulating, I find molecular orbital diagrams an artistic delight, I find interpreting spectroscopic data to give the most striking patterns, I find pericyclic reactions and ring closures arresting and stunning. And I think Chemistry teachers have a responsibility to show students the aesthetic side of Chemistry, simply because Chemistry enriches the Arts.

The MO diagram for hydrogen (what symmetry, what lines!).

However, this is not to say that the relationship is one-sided. I gave examples above of occasions where Chemistry exhibits design-thinking (again, this should be an aspect of all great science teaching), but are students better at this in Chemistry because they are taking Arts and Design courses as well? I think they probably are, but I don't have the data yet to prove it. My inclination is that the broad Arts and Design curricula at Bedales is integral to why students are so proficient in the laboratory skills parts of Chemistry. (That and because we do a lot of practical work as part of the course.) The students I work with now, especially in Sixth Form, are design thinkers, they are innovators. What I need to do now is work out the direction of causation: are they so good because we do so much design-led practical work, or are we led to a design heavy curriculum by the expectations of a broadly arts and humanities educated students body? Perhaps there will be an opportunity for me to conduct some research...

There is still more to achieve: I am very excited about working with Textiles, and I am keen to get students into the aesthetic side of Chemistry before Sixth Form. I suppose now that the Year 11s have gone on study leave, I can devote some time to a bit of design-thinking of my own, and try to embed the Arts more deeply into our curricula to ensure that we really are nurturing the innovators of tomorrow.

A design inspired by the structure of insulin.

Images from From Atoms to Patterns, Wellcome Collection.

#chemistry #broadercurriculum

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© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.