Portrait of Marie Curie on Polish currency.
© johan10/BigStockPhoto.com

Quite often, female scientists of chemistry and physics appear almost like stick figures in science textbooks — famously known for their scientific accomplishments, but not as the real humans they were.

Madame Curie is a woman who needs no introduction. She is, in my opinion, the most famous scientist of all time. Her legacy is as evident today as it was in her time, with many institutions and awards named in her honor.

That’s why, whenever I begin a chemistry lesson on either atomic theory or nuclear chemistry, I ask my chemistry students why Marie Curie is famous, or what were her contributions to science that made her an icon?

Unfortunately, the responses that I receive are typically blank stares, shrugs of the shoulders, or sometimes comments like, “Oh, she was the scientist lady who wore a black long dress.”

I continue to be shocked by this … how could my chemistry students not know the story of Madame Curie? How could they not know of her relentless resolve and insatiable curiosity — qualities that made her such an icon in the world of science? How could they not know that, despite a career of physically demanding (and ultimately fatal) work, she discovered two elements, radium and polonium, and truly changed our understanding of radioactivity? And, how could they not know that her revolutionary findings about the atom had widespread applications, from the atomic bomb to the field of medicine? These were all, I think, phenomenal achievements — regardless of her gender.

Presenting Madame Curie

To introduce my students to the story of Marie Curie, I always start my unit on atomic theory by showing them Madame Curie (1943), a film based on the biography written by Curie’s daughter, Eve Curie.

Although the film is not meant to be a science lesson, I think it’s an extremely valuable tool to provide my students a window into Marie and Pierre Curie’s underfunded lab. It gives viewers the opportunity to see how the Curies endured many years of arduous, back-breaking labor as they shoveled, crushed, and boiled tons of pitchblende ore in order to measure signs of radioactivity that were hidden inside the ore.

The Curies’ lab work involved health risks that they did not fully understand at the time. Yet even though they felt sick and physically exhausted at times, they continued to work on isolating radium from pitchblende. In 1901, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of radium and polonium, and for isolating radium. The following year, the Curies successfully isolated the element radium; the year after that, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on spontaneous radioactivity.

Sadly, only three years later, Marie’s life was suffered a terrible tragedy, when her husband was struck and killed by a horse and buggy while crossing the street. Devastated by her loss, she continued their work on isolating radium, and after 12 years, she finally succeeded — and proved the element’s existence.

When the film ends, we have a class discussion. While there are many lessons to be learned from the life of Marie Curie, my students find it most impressive that she persevered and never allowed herself to be deterred by physical or personal hardships. What they find the most appealing is her intense love of science, and her drive to understand it. I explain to my students that few discoveries have had as much impact on the world as the Curies’ work on radioactivity, and that their discovery opened the door to our understanding of the structure of the atom. I also tell them that they will encounter many more scientists who played important roles in our understanding of the atom, and who also persevered through many hardships in the name of science. The look in their eyes is that of “tell me more” … and what makes me feel best is that I now have my students hooked and intrigued.

Students who may have started out seeing the Curies as merely stick figures in a chemistry textbook, can now associate faces and lives with the many concepts they will be learning. These fascinating figures include scientists like Bohr, Planck, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and Lise Meitner, just to name a few. My students still surprise me when they raise their hand during class and ask if I have any personal stories to share with them about any of the scientists we are studying. This makes me so happy … because I do!

As we know, chemistry does not usually get much attention from the mainstream media, but surprisingly, 77 years after Madame Curie was originally released, a new film about Curie, titled Radioactive, was set to be released in April 2020. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release date was postponed, and finally, in September, it made its debut on Amazon Prime Video.

I would have never known about this movie had it not been for one of my AP Chemistry students who brought it to my attention. This student was so excited to tell me about the movie since, she had seen the earlier film when she was in my chemistry class. This represents a new opportunity for the public to learn the story behind the life of Madame Curie. I hope that you will take the opportunity to have your students watch and/or incorporate her story into your lesson on atomic theory or nuclear chemistry, so that you can share with your students a look into the life of a truly remarkable scientist.

Teaching resources

AACT has many classroom resources available about influential scientists, including Marie Curie, for teachers to use and incorporate into lessons. For example, the Founders of Chemistry video series highlights the many great scientists who made discoveries that led to modern chemistry. There is also a 5-minute Marie Curie video, as well as a video questions assignment to accompany it. Additionally, you can find similarly valuable videos about scientists like Ernest Rutherford, Amedeo Avogadro, and Lise Meitner in this series.

Other excellent teaching resources that help engage students with the historical significance of science include What is Chemistry?, an activity where students become familiar with the history of chemistry and then complete a SOMA cube to enhance their perspective in the process of discovery. Famous Women Chemists: Snapchat Storyboard, Scientist Infographic, and The Scientist Behind the Atom are all projects for students to complete research and present their findings in various manners.

Another favorite of mine, and a great lesson plan to connect back to Curie, is How Modern Instrumentation Revolutionized the Poison Game. Students learn about radium and forensic chemistry using the prologue of Deborah Blum’s, The Poisoners Handbook. Discussion revolves around why murder by poison was so prevalent during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and why it is so rare today. Students create their own Safety Data Sheet on a poison of their choice, and learn about how mass spectroscopy has helped revolutionize the modern analysis of toxins. Finally, using your AACT membership, you can now access the ChemMatters archives. Among the many fantastic articles, “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind”: Great Discoveries in Chemistry, from the October 2012 issue, highlights the work of the Curies. Do you have a great teaching resource to share with the community? If so, learn more about our easy submission process!

Professional learning

AACT offers many professional development opportunities for teachers. One of my favorites is the webinar series. These help to reach so many teachers, and cover a wide array of topics. I was thrilled to attend a great webinar by the captivating author, Sam Kean, who wrote The Disappearing Spoon. He offers many stories about historically significant events connected to chemistry, and in this webinar there is a segment focused on Marie Curie, including her Nobel Prizes, radiation experiments, and discovery of new elements.

In addition, Chemistry Solutions continues to serve as a great platform for teachers to share their knowledge and experience with other teachers. If you have something special to share, I encourage you to start the process, and get involved! In this month’s issue, several great teachers have shared about their own experiences. Matt Perekupka describes several new teaching practices he has implemented in response to the current remote learning environment, while middle school teacher Jennifer Smith shares about several strategies that can be leveraged both during and after the pandemic. Additionally, teachers can learn some practical ways to use online forms and surveys to both engage students in remote learning and gain more real-time feedback on lesson comprehension. A veteran teacher shares about her interesting experience redesigning a traditional multiple-choice chemistry semester exam to serve as an authentic assessment for her Honors Chemistry students, and provides helpful insights for other teachers who might consider doing the same. Finally, hear about one teacher’s journey to the classroom, inspired by her own high school chemistry teacher, as well as many experiences throughout her life.

I hope that you continue to find valuable resources through AACT, and are inspired by the great content available. Our classroom resource library is growing daily, and we continue to add new opportunities for members to share with the community. I encourage you to find new ways to bring the scientific past alive in your classroom, and share about the successful strategies that you use!

Greta Glugoski-Sharp

Greta Glugoski-Sharp
AACT President-Elect

Photo credits:
(article cover) JegasRa/Bigstockphoto.com

(issue cover) DRAVYNO/Bigstockphoto.com