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Creative chemistry

Professors engage students by incorporating art into science

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

Professors in the Department of Chemistry have gotten creative in engaging first-year students during this year of remote learning.

Dr. Chris Kozak says a session at the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition inspired him to reach out to his colleagues about incorporating an element of ‘art’ into their course.

“Including art in science, technology, engineering and mathematics can popularize these fields to the general public and show they can be truly beautiful,” he said.

While his fellow instructors have all been incorporating the idea differently, he has made creative chemistry assignments worth 20 per cent of his students’ final grade.

“Normally the final exam is worth 50 per cent, but this year it’s only going to be worth 30 per cent,” said Dr. Kozak. “They make up the rest from these assignments. The students have really taken to it and we’ve been happily overwhelmed by the quality of their creative works.”

Finding chemistry in the everyday

The long-time professor says many students, and their professors, are struggling this year.

“The lack of ability to engage with students was the main impetus behind these assignments,” he said. “It was also a way to get students who weren’t book savvy into doing something creative that got them thinking about chemistry and how it ties into their everyday lives.”

Student submissions ran the gamut from comics to TikTok videos.
Photo: Emily Bautista

The students were required to choose four assignments from a selection of seven. Those included creating a piece of chemistry art in any medium, a TikTok video, an infographic, or a song about chemistry, written submissions about songs that made the student think about chemistry, a public interest story about chemistry targeted to the general public or a one-page biography of a non-Nobel prize winning chemist.

“I specifically said I didn’t want to see bios of old, white guys,” said Dr. Kozak. “I wanted them to find people who were underrepresented, to introduce me to people who should be household names, and they came up with some really great ones.”

Chemistry molecular models using candy-coated cake pops.
Photo: Ashtyn Wells

From Alejandro to Avogadro

With 100 students in his class, that equals 400 works of chemistry art. Bonus marks were given if the work was posted to social media and examples can be found under the hashtag #Chem1050Art.

“One of my colleague Barry Power’s students performed a song inspired by Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air that was aired on NTV news,” said Dr. Kozak. “Another wrote one about Amedeo Avogadro – who gave us Avogadro’s number of the Mole – to Lady Gaga’s Alejandro, which was really fantastic. I was really impressed by their contributions.”

The main criteria for the assignments was the chemistry had to be accurate.

“If you are going to present any chemical concept, it can’t just be a cute TiKTok video,” he said. “If you’re talking about a process you have to get the process accurate. Otherwise, they are just spreading pseudoscience and that’s something we want to avoid.”

Relevant and relatable

While this was a first for the professor, it won’t be the last. After discussing it with fellow CHEM 1050 instructors, he’s decided the creative chemistry assignments will continue even after face-to-face teaching resumes.

He also hopes students walk away from his class with a greater appreciation for chemistry and the role art can play in it.

Chemistry periodic table in painted rock form.
Photo: Madison Legge

“I have some real artists in my class and normally they don’t get a chance to use that skill set in a science class,” he said. “They think it’s just a hobby. But I tell them there are jobs to be had for people who are scientifically literate and visually creative.

“Few people will read a thousand-word article, but if you can summarize that information into a nice graphic they can look at and relate to, they’ll digest it more easily and maybe then chemistry, in particular, won’t be as scary.”


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