STEAM: How Art Can Help Improve Science Teaching

    Bridging the gap between science and art, one graphic at a time.

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    When I was 14, I fell in love with chemistry as I saw two colourless solutions change into a golden rain with shiny light sparkles, flying free. Magnificent colour changes, twinkling self-grown crystals and quirky smells in chemistry attracted me like magic. As I gradually started diving deeper into the field, chemistry explained the underlying mechanism of the magic and helped me interpret my visual world with its own language and rules.

    “Aesthetics, together with the combination of elegance in expression, shaped my view towards chemistry and led me to become an amateur chemist.”

    The central science connects beauty and logic together, not only in itself, but also in its methodology. Since the early founding of chemistry, chemists have used imagination and visualizing skills to express chemical concepts and theories. Dalton depicted atoms and molecules with shades and circles; Kekule derived the formula of benzene from his dream of a snake. The process of conducting a chemical reaction is akin to creating an artwork—both aim to manipulate matter and make new creations. Aesthetics, together with the combination of elegance in expression, shaped my view towards chemistry and led me to become an amateur chemist.

    This graphic was inspired by the Japanese concept ‘Kachyofugetu’, which means beautiful natural scenery. A branch of cherry blossom, the Japanese national flower, was also drawn in front of the mountain.

    About a year later, I went into an international high school and looked forward to the first class in our chemistry unit. I was looking forward to sparks and colours, but nothing of them showed up during the class; my classmates and I were introduced to formulas, numbers and calculations of the mole concept only. By the end of the unit, many of my peers were already fed up with chemistry, claiming that it was ‘fact-based’, ’uninteresting’ and ‘not able to be related to life.’ At the same time, many of my peer amateur chemists disagreed that chemistry has its artistic side, and it could go with the arts. “Scientists and artist’s minds were wired intrinsically differently. Art relies mainly on the free expression of emotions and ideas; however, science is about rationalising and problem solving which requires rigorous intellectual abilities”.

    Instead of making science approachable and inspiring the students, the educational system portrays science, especially chemistry as something abstract and rigid, something that is linear and present for the smartest minds exclusively.

    Chemistry education focuses mainly on training students for specific skills like problem-solving; it puts little emphasis on delivering beauty, wonders, a wider understanding of chemistry and conveying the relevance of chemistry to the students. ‘Why do we need to learn it? What is the importance of mastering the material?’ As a result, students often do not feel the connection between themselves and chemistry. And this is further confirmed by the public campaign program by the Royal Society of Chemistry. According to the Public Attitudes Towards Chemistry campaign, the overall engagement of chemistry is fairly low. Most surveyed people could not think of chemistry beyond their school experience.

    “Adding Art into the current STEM notion is not undermining it; instead, it is wiring the notion to make it broader and more diverse in definition.”

    Education plays a leading role in building up students with the perception of a subject. How can we formulate a way to present both the logical and creative sides of chemistry, and introduce students to chemistry in a manner that illustrates its beauty, its elegance and its impact in our modern society? How can we ensure that our students have the awareness towards global issues that chemistry can potentially tackle, for example, global warming? And most importantly, how can we ensure that kids and teenagers not only master the skills offered by worksheets, quizzes and the lab sessions, but also employ them on a larger horizon and transfer them into new discoveries?

    An integration with the creative and critical approach towards chemistry is needed. With this thought in mind, I founded Alchemy, a STEAM (STEM + Art) program in January, last year to promote science/chemistry education mainly through visual expressions and writing.

    The graphic was inspired by the palaces and houses at Red Square, a historical symbol at the centre of Moscow. Orange and green were used as the main colours of palaces’ bodies in correspondence with the colour scheme of the palaces at Red Square. The 3 strips under the palaces are blue, white, and red which are the colours that make up the Russian flag.

    Having my skills in graphic design, I started two sub-programs. The first one is called Astrophile, which introduces the concepts of astrophysics by illustration. The second one is The Periodic Graphics of Elements, which introduces the properties and usage of each chemical element by vivid drawings combining cultural and historical symbols. What should I draw for the graphic of each element? Can these symbols represent the element and how can they be designed? As I worked through the graphics, I started to determine the degree of artistic expression in a graphic to convey the chemical facts effectively and objectively without distortions or exaggerations; in other words, to create the visuals that speak their own meanings. To reach out to a wider audience, I put each graphic together with a couple of sentences introducing the element on social media accounts of Alchemy. My graphics spread out successfully.

    STEAM remains a relatively new educational concept, but it is with potential. Art is a visual language that could create and convey meanings. It is the language of ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘asking why’. Adding Art into the current STEM notion is not undermining it; instead, it is wiring the notion to make it broader and more diverse in definition. Creative thinking is needed in science and technology, research and innovation; an understanding of culture and the arts helps science develop in a way that could benefit our humanity.

    Science, especially chemistry, is not only the game for the most intelligent people; it comprises every aspect of our lives and ourselves. It shapes our lifestyles and the environment that we live in. I hope that through Alchemy, I can connect the dots between a new generation of young teens and science and equip them with not only the scientific knowledge and skills, but also with the diverse mindset that both science discovery and artistic creations offer.

    Julie Hu introduces her views towards the interdisciplinary integration of art and science/chemistry through the STEAM (STEM+Art) notion in education

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