by Jailson Lima
Chemistry Department, Vanier College, Montreal, QC, Canada
The premise that good education prepares students for life implies that schools should equip them with tools to overcome future hurdles. If the rules do not change, my current 19-year-old college students will likely retire around the year 2070. What will the world look like then? What kind of knowledge will they need to succeed in that world? We cannot even predict what the world will look like in 5 years, let alone in 45! That world will be remarkably different from today’s. They are unlikely to spend their careers in a single job, or even in one field. Most likely, they will participate in various projects throughout their lives and will need to quickly adjust and adapt to an ever-increasing rate of change. In that reality, the compartmentalized disciplinary siloes of traditional science curriculum will have to be restructured to emphasize strong interdisciplinary foundations. This is not a revolutionary idea: The development of an integrated science curriculum has been part of several educational reforms since the 1960s.1
To illustrate the importance of an integrated science curriculum, I will describe a personal experience. As mentioned previously, in the pre-Internet era of the1990s, my interest in astrochemistry was the driving force in proposing a series of lessons as part of an integrated high-school science curriculum in Brazil. At that time, Hartquist and Williams  had just published an introductory astrochemistry text that was clear, concise, and accessible at this level. I felt confident that introducing this topic would provide an interesting take on the role of chemistry as a central science that would bridge physics and biology. In the proposal that I submitted to the school administration, I requested the services of a private company to set up a mobile planetarium in the school’s basketball court for one whole day so that small groups of students (of up to 30 per session) could attend a 50-minute presentation whose script was based on excerpts of Hartquist and Williams’s book. The activity was carefully designed to describe a chemically controlled cosmos in which chemical elements (heavier than hydrogen and helium) are forged in the stars. These “cosmic furnaces” produce elements as heavy as iron. Additionally, heavier-than-iron elements are fused during the supernova explosion of massive stars, and the material is expelled across interstellar space. Eventually, these gigantic gas clouds condense into planets to make up everything we see (including ourselves). The objectives of this activity were fully accomplished: students became aware of Chemistry’s central role. Its boundaries were expanded beyond the mundane confines of test tubes holding colored substances, precipitates, and fizzy solutions. It also gave them a new poetic perspective for the whole universe since, after all, we are all made of stardust, as stated in many popular songs. Chemistry is everywhere; chemistry is everything!
Teachers were also invited to attend the mobile-planetarium sessions that were available throughout the day. My greatest surprise came from the unexpected reaction of some colleagues who attended the activity and later commented on it. They were humble to confess that, at first, they did not understand how the content of a chemistry course could have any connection with a planetarium. Even science teachers were surprised to discover the link between the origin of chemical elements in the “star furnaces.” This fact made me reflect deeply about the role of imagination and creativity in our lives. Everyone has a unique learning ecology, and teachers tend to reproduce in their practice the teaching approaches that they experienced as students. At the time, I knew about those links solely because of personal interest and by following the literature on the subject. Not a single course that I had previously taken had explored these connections. It should not have been surprising to me that these connections were not evident for other teachers.
I am aware that this type of experimentation is not possible in most schools. With the reality of constant cuts in educational funding, renting a mobile planetarium for a day is beyond the financial resources of most schools. I asked the school to rent the mobile planetarium because I wanted to emotionally engage students by spiking their interest in the topic. I also knew that a regular visit to the city’s planetarium would not suffice since their scheduled presentations emphasize aspects of basic astronomy rather than astrochemistry. I am grateful for the opportunity to develop this project at a time when a chalkboard was the only tool available in the classroom.
Fast forward from the late 1990s nearly a quarter of a century, and standard orthodox pedagogies are still the norm in college science courses in 2023. Students tend to learn science mostly by memorizing sets of facts or procedures that are based on “one right way” approaches to the material. Both the poor variety of instructional strategies and the types of assessments employed in science courses reinforce a performance-oriented outlook that places importance solely on grades instead of focusing on the learning process. The basic structure of chemistry curricula has not changed much in the last decades, and students still struggle to transfer knowledge among the siloed disciplines.
What did I learn from the chemically controlled cosmos approach? First, developing new lessons from scratch is a daunting task because it is extremely time- and labor-intensive. Secondly, adopting a STEAM approach requires a complete overhaul of collective attitudes and approaches toward curriculum and assessment. The administrators and teachers must agree on clearly defined standards: what counts, and what is essential. Third, the learning ecologies of all stakeholders must overlap to a certain degree so that they are able to work in synch. Finally, this case illustrates the importance of providing proper training for teachers who are interested in adopting STEAM pedagogies. They need to be up to date with the conceptual framework of the lessons and, it goes without saying, that they need to believe that imagination and creativity are powerful learning tools.
In reflecting on this journey, it becomes evident that fostering imagination and creativity in education is not merely a luxury, but a necessity in preparing students for an unknown future. The integration of disciplines, the exploration of new pedagogical approaches, and the cultivation of a collective belief in the power of creativity are all crucial steps towards shaping a more dynamic and responsive educational paradigm. Developing innovations in curriculum are intimately connected to the way educational institutions envisage both the role of learning and the social function of schools in a broader historical and economic context.
- Atkin, J.M., & Black, P. (2003). Inside science education reform: A history of curricular and policy change. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Hartquist, T.W., & Williams, D.A. (1995). The chemically controlled cosmos. New York: Cambridge University Press.