November 2022 | Classroom Commentary
Chemical Phenomena in Everyday Life: An Adventure in Writing Across the Curriculum
By Laurie Smith
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
― Rosalind Franklin
Over the years, the cornerstone of my teaching has been to enhance the chemistry curriculum with activities that demonstrate connections to students’ lives. Each September, I explain to students that one of the course goals is to experience chemistry through their own senses, both in the laboratory and outside the classroom.
I’m fortunate to teach a second-year chemistry honors course for juniors and seniors, where we have a chance to explore AP topics at a slightly more relaxed pace. As such, I have designed a project in which students research a molecule, of their choice, that is found in a substance or product that they encounter in everyday life. I’ve assigned this project over many years, and my students have studied many different molecules. Examples include theobromine (found in chocolate), malic acid (sour candy), and methyl salicylate (topical analgesics).
As this project has evolved over time, I’ve experimented with various ways for students to present their final products, including slideshow presentations, infographics, and annotated photo collages. To encourage collaboration, I also task students with identifying a podcast, video, or scientific article about their molecule and write probing questions (and answers) for classmates. For example, after my students watched this short TedEd video on chirality, I asked them follow-up questions (see Figure 1).
|Figure 1. Sample follow-up question for students who had just watched a brief video on chirality. The question references molecular structures for cinnamaldehyde (C9H8O), found in cinnamon (left), and gingerol (C17H26O4), found in fresh ginger (right).
Students bring samples of the products to school for everyone to explore with their senses: smelling the allicin in garlic, tasting the capsaicin in “Flamin’ Hot” Cheetos, and seeing the bright orange of beta carotene in carrot sticks. After a few years, this popular project took a new turn, with an interdisciplinary twist!
Origin of the project
One summer, I had the chance to participate in a workshop organized by two of my colleagues in the English department. They shared their enthusiasm for a Writing Marathon, a teaching/learning exercise that sprang from the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, which drew in turn on the concept and practice of freewriting described in Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones1.
As we engaged in our own scaled-down Writing Marathon — which involved walking around our town, observing, writing, and sharing — I was struck by the idea of how each writer’s unique perspective shifted their observations. The English teachers also proposed expanding the event to include courses outside the English department. That started me wondering: How could I use freewriting as a way to make connections between chemistry concepts and daily life?
During the free-writing sessions, I learned that it is enjoyable to just sit with myself and my thoughts, and just write whatever comes to mind. Since I knew that the individual free writes wouldn't be graded, I was able to let go of my usual writing habits of not writing a sentence unless I thought it was perfect. — Student Reflection
Laying the groundwork
Following the workshop, I made a plan to use the writing marathon activity in my own classroom. I began preparing students for it the first week of school with a short activity called, “Chemistry in Action.” As a class, we discussed the fact that when the students took biology, they dissected various organisms in order to study body systems. Meanwhile, in physics, they shot projectiles at various angles to analyze horizontal and vertical motion. We all agreed that the discipline of chemistry, in contrast, is more abstract and harder for them to “see,” because it focuses on the behavior of invisible atoms.
As an initial activity, I sent pairs of students off to find an example of an interesting chemical phenomenon around campus. Armed with small blank journals, their phones, and rulers, they documented their phenomenon with words, sketches, and photos. Each group created an informative slide for a class slideshow, which helped me gauge where the students were starting from, in terms of their ability to recognize and explain scientific concepts.
|Figure 2. A student photo, description, and question created during the Chemistry in Action activity.
Training for the marathon
I knew students needed to practice freewriting before they participated in our Writing Marathon planned for April. However, I wondered, how could we carve out the time needed to do so? I decided to leverage demonstrations of chemical phenomena we explored in class to provide the springboard.
I began by introducing students to the concept of freewriting by sharing a quote from playwright and actor Sam Shepard about writing in general: “… It’s a thing of discovering. That’s when writing is really working. You’re on the trail of something and you don’t quite know what it is.”
As my students examined this quote, I asked them to consider the parallels between Shepard’s perspective on writing and the process of scientific discovery. How do they feel when they observe an unfamiliar phenomenon in the lab and then set out to investigate it?
My lesson on freewriting continued by reviewing some basic tips and strategies:
- Write without worry about syntax, spelling, or grammar.
- Keep the pen moving.
- Write for a set amount of time (approximately 10 minutes).
- Even when you think you are “done,” push yourself to write more, observe more, and describe the significance of your observations.
Of course, a common concern voiced by the students was: What if I can’t think of anything else to write? When you’re stuck, Goldberg suggests, try completing one or more of these key phrases to push yourself:
I just want to say...
To which I added a few prompts of my own:
Think like a scientist.
How does a scientist observe? What words do we use? What do we look for?
What science concepts have we studied that you might see evidence of?
What questions do you have?
What do you wonder?
|Figure 3. This image of a water dispenser taken with a thermal camera was used to provoke student thinking during the freewriting activity.|
A critical component of freewriting is sharing your work in a nonjudgmental setting. After each writing session, my students formed small groups and read their journal entries to each other aloud. Goldberg stresses that the only helpful response that listeners can share is to say, “Thank you.” In fact, one shouldn’t even say so much as, “Great job,” or “I agree.” Admittedly, I felt a bit out of my comfort zone here; I wasn’t sure what the student buy-in would be on this point (after all, I am not an English teacher). I was happily surprised, however, to observe the students listening quietly and attentively to their peers during the practice sessions.What did students write about? For the freewriting sessions sprinkled throughout the year, I chose concepts tied to topics we were currently exploring. For example, during our unit on light and waves, a photo of a water cooler taken with a thermal camera (see Figure 3) served as the phenomenon. Students described the different colors they observed in the image, and how they related to the thermal energy released near the hot and cold water dispensers. They were able to recognize infrared radiation and make connections to the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelength, and the frequency and energy of light.
The highlight was definitely eating the food at Eataly, and then going back home and actually finding (by calculating) just how many molecules I ate that day! I think it was great to be able to explore chemistry in the real world. — Student Reflection
Marathon Day: Writing Across NYC!
|Figure 4. One of several buildings exhibiting corrosion observed in lower Manhattan. Students noticed signs of oxidation in unexpected places, relevant to the Statue of Liberty and their unit on electrochemistry.|
On the morning of our field trip, my English department colleague, Cynthia Darling, set the stage for all the student participants, sharing: “You will come to understand the power of writing in your discipline, and you will come to see the way your subject area is alive in the setting of this city, applying our subject area knowledge beyond the textbook and the classroom.”
My class began in The Battery, one of New York City’s most famous parks, with observations of my favorite landmark, the Statue of Liberty. Chemistry could not be more abundant here — including the topics of color changes, corrosion, and oxidation-reduction reactions. Students were free to develop their own prompts and of course, everyone took lots of photos! At each location, I gave my students prompts to spark their writing.
- The Battery: Observe the Statue of Liberty. Imagine what the statue looked like when she was first assembled. It took about 20 years for her to turn green, a much shorter length of time than expected. Write about what you see and why you think the statue corroded faster than expected. What chemical principles are at work? Ask questions; try to answer them.
- 9/11 Memorial: How is water used at the 9/11 Memorial? What properties of water do you observe? What design challenges did the engineers need to overcome when using water in this manner?
- At other stops along the way:
- We’ve just finished studying periodic trends. Look for other patterns around you and describe what you see. Why are scientists interested in identifying patterns?
- How has science changed NYC over time? How might things have looked differently here 100 years ago? What evidence of change do you see?
- Write about what you are eating. What do you taste? What molecules are in the food you are eating? Make a list of as many ingredients as you can identify in your meal.
I loved the Writing Marathon, as it allowed me to see everyday buildings/landmarks/objects in a new way, and I found that throughout the entire trip my brain was in a "chemistry mode" in a way that it has never been. — Student Reflection
After the marathon, students chose one of their writing samples as a springboard for a two-page research paper. Students focused on the chemical phenomenon they identified in their journal entry and, using their text and online sources, they delved deeper into the scientific concepts behind what they observed. Through their research, students were able to investigate the answers to some of the questions they generated during the Writing Marathon. For example, The Statue of Liberty’s True Colors? and a resource page from the ACS Reactions video series were the research springboards for one of my students.
Connections to everyday life provide the glue to help chemistry concepts stick. The shared experience of observing, wondering, writing, and talking about these concepts absolutely enhanced learning in my classroom. On a bigger scale, there are many studies that support the claim that writing improves student learning. Interestingly, Rivard and Straw2 found that writing and talking about science concepts improve retention even more than those students who only write.
It is clear to me that the students will remember the Writing Marathon when they think back on their high school experiences, as evidenced by the feedback I received from an anonymous survey at the end of the course.
The pandemic kept us from venturing into NYC for the Writing Marathon for several years, so instead, during that time my class did a mini-marathon I called: Chemistry Comes Alive at Home! To help students recognize how they could actually write about chemical phenomena at home, I provided some ideas. I encouraged them to fill a glass with water and conduct an experiment — such as putting ice cubes in the water, heating the water, or pouring the water on the counter. I asked them to pick an object at their home, identify its composition, and describe the properties that made it suitable for that particular use. Finally, students were asked to think back to the unit on periodic trends. What patterns could they observe, identify, and explain? Why is this process valuable to scientists?
One student wrote about a new tradition her family developed during quarantine: s’more-making and chats around the firepit. In her paper, she drew on various portions of the curriculum, describing the concepts of heat transfer, combustion, and limiting reactant.
I am very grateful to Cynthia Darling, Paige Boncher, and the administration at Montclair Kimberley Academy for encouragement and support for the development of this endeavor. It has enhanced my role as an educator and enriched the lives of our students.
- Goldberg, N. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within; Shambhala Press: Boulder, 2016.
- Rivard, L.P.; Straw, S.B. The Effect of Talk and Writing on Learning Science: An Exploratory Study. Science Education, 84: 566-593.
WAC Clearinghouse. “Why Include Writing in My Courses.” Accessed August 20, 2022. https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/wac/intro/include/.
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(article cover) Bigstockphoto.com/mstjahanara