Chemistry boldly goes to the edge

In my high-school studies, science disciplines were presented as fields of knowledge based on certainty and absolute truths. My chemistry teachers spent most of the class time solving mathematical problems to get quantitative results instead of exploring the meaning of the numerical results obtained. Chemistry was taught through a mathematical and theoretical approach based on a reductionist, dualistic view in which something is either right or wrong. Despite my being a top-of-the-class student, I could not help but feel deeply frustrated with a school system in which learning was a mere bureaucratic activity deprived of the excitement and sense of wonder that I experienced with sci-fi books and movies. I have often wondered why school had to be so boring, mind numbing and depleted of any meaningful connection with real life. However, despite my painful school experiences, I have always liked science and decided to pursue a career in chemistry.

After completing a teaching certificate, B.S., M.S. and a PhD in inorganic photochemistry, I started to “think like a chemist.” Knowing chemistry requires understanding the validity of knowledge based on mental models. Students often claim that Dalton’s atomic model is “wrong” because it does not assume the existence of subatomic particles — protons, electrons and neutrons. What they fail to understand is that Dalton’s model is suitable for explaining, for example, the behaviour of gases. One does not need electrons or protons to explain why a flat tire inflates by pumping air into it. For me, it was revealing to replace former standard orthodox, only “one right way” approaches, loaded with unquestionable truths with a pedagogy that fosters critical self-reflection by questioning the value and limitations of the models used. The new picture that emerged was insightful and exciting. I wanted to transfer this excitement to my teaching practice by designing assessments that I would love to have been exposed to in high school. I sought a pedagogy based on a transformative process integrating students’ previous knowledge by incorporating their emotions and feelings as part of a purposely designed narrative. Instead of presenting a sequence of weakly connected chapters, I envisioned an introductory course that “begins with the beginning” — the genesis of the elements according to the principles of astrochemistry. In this new course, each subsequent topic builds on the previous ones, with all connected to real-life situations.

In 1997, the successful landing of the Pathfinder rover on Mars triggered my first attempt to tweak the format of the traditional high-school curriculum in Brazil. Each module promoted reflection by introducing open questions such as Can we expect the chemical composition of Mars to be like that of Earth? Could the isotopic distribution of the elements on our planet be different from the one on Mars? Answering questions like these requires a high degree of speculation and shifts the pedagogy away from the right-wrong dichotomy. I did not expect students to give the “correct” answer but to emotionally engage their imaginations. With the limitations of the pre-internet era, I relied on the stunning pictures of the Martian landscape taken by the Pathfinder as the starting point. A mobile planetarium was set up in the school’s gymnasium to provide visual cues to contextualize the course content and introduce the basic ideas of a chemically controlled cosmos where elements are generated in stars. When learning about chemical bonding and chemical reactions, I presented unusual chemical species that have been detected in interstellar space to bring awareness that the structures and reactions of chemical substances given in our textbooks are based on their reactivity patterns on or near the Earth’s surface. However, those patterns can change remarkably under the different conditions of temperature, pressure and available energy that are found in space or even on the surface of Mars. What can happen to the chemical reactivity of those substances when exposed to high-energy electromagnetic radiation? This type of question opens the door to other exercises of imagination: What are the so-called gamma rays that transformed Dr. Banner into the Incredible Hulk? What is the chemical composition of Wolverine’s claws? How much energy is in a “photon torpedo” fired from the Enterprise? Is light a wave or a particle?

I was aware that some students might not share my interest in astronomy and sci-fi. Because of that, it was paramount to explore multiple facets and come up with topics that might be of interest to larger audiences. For example, as a high-school student, I understood the importance of titration as an analytical technique but was not exactly thrilled to solve problems to find out that a given sample of vinegar contains, for example, 5.0% of acetic acid. This classical question rarely ignites students’ curiosity since we do not need studies to show that, for teenagers, vinegar does not make the top ten list of the most interesting topics in science. But what could be a more engaging theme? I started asking students how much Coca-Cola (or coffee, or Red Bull) must be drunk in a brief period to die of caffeine overdose. This type of question sparked students’ curiosity and became the starting point of fruitful class discussions because caffeinated drinks are part of their daily lives. Pointing out the absurdity of miscalculations in the range of fractions of millilitres to a few litres caused students to reflect on the meaning of their results. At long last, they discovered that knowing about concentration of solutions can be useful to keep them alive.

In 2008, I read some books by members of Simon Fraser University’s Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) that advocate that the inclusion of imagination through narrative enhances the learning experience. Around the same period, I found the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Ken Robinson on the crucial role of creativity as a cognitive tool. Since the similarities between the conceptual frameworks of these innovative pedagogies and my own teaching approach were evident, I found inspiration to explore the uncharted waters where science and the visual arts meet. But what novelty can the visual arts bring to science education? Scholars have pointed out that scientific concepts are special because they stem from formal, conceptual structures that do not arise spontaneously in the everyday experiences of a child. In many disciplines, learners start from a set of concrete, tangible concepts and eventually move to more abstract ones. For example, the study of history usually starts with the significance of events and issues, followed by the description of patterns of change over time. In advanced stages, students are introduced to the analysis of cause and effect and develop a sense of multiple perspectives through which the past can be analyzed. In science, we observe an exactly opposite trend going from the abstract to the concrete. Teachers introduce linguistically abstract concepts such as energy, atom, chemical bond or intermolecular forces and expect their students to apply these concepts to concrete situations encountered in, for example, lab experiments. No wonder so many students find chemistry difficult and confusing. In this sense, the abstract character of the visual arts can help students make this transition from abstract to concrete. How can one portray, for example, atomic models, energy, or chemical bonding using visual representations?

The Art & Science Project was first implemented in a History of Science course that was part of the Liberal Arts program1,2 at Vanier College. Later, students in the Science program taking General Chemistry, Chemistry of Solutions, and Organic Chemistry were asked to portray the “big ideas” in Chemistry using visual arts.3,4 We are currently expanding this project in a multidisciplinary fashion by combining the big ideas in both Chemistry and Physics.5

Recently, the SpaceX project put Mars exploration back in the spotlight. I took the opportunity to revamp my 1990s, pre-internet Mars project by including artmaking6 backed up by the data available from the NASA website, TED talks, books and articles from magazines such as Scientific American. Liberal Arts students write their course paper6 by imagining themselves as Mars settlers, leaving Earth and travelling for months in outer space to arrive on a cold, dry planet, whose gravity is only about 38% of the Earth’s, without breathable air and whose surface is bombarded with high-energy electromagnetic radiation.

This type of assessment requires active, imaginative engagement that can trigger a transformative learning experience in motivated students. Instead of the traditional format in which teachers teach, students memorize, and examinations assess, imaginative pedagogies contextualize acquired knowledge through transfer and intense reflection. It can help students achieve an expansion of awareness that can alter permanently how they think and decode information. More importantly, learners are asked to construct meaning through a process that challenges the common misconception that scientific knowledge is fixed and universal.

Understanding chemistry requires a complex conceptual framework in which students navigate between distinct types of representations. To facilitate this sometimes-overwhelming task, high-school courses could use art making to unleash imagination, while sparking curiosity, and promoting reflection. This transformative learning experience results in a reformulation and integration of multiple perspectives that can allow our students to boldly go where no one has gone before.

[The artwork on the front cover was created by a student in the Art and Chemistry course, and the following showcased just some of the art produced. More student artwork is posted, along with the explanation behind the chemistry that inspired them,

Jailson Lima is this year’s Chemical Institute of Canada Beaumier Award for excellence in teaching chemistry at the high school or CÉGEP level in Canada.

Read about Popcasso (front cover) - a product of this Art and Chemistry course ]

The Chemistry behind a Belladonna – a painting of an eye with an organic molecule coming out"The Chemistry Behind a Belladonna"

 a painting with three white circles with yellow dots on each and colourful painted swirls"Quantum & the Atom"


 a 3D model of atoms looking like a solar system"The Consciousness of an Atom"

 a painting of a library of books but room is the solar system"Science"


 a 3D piece of artwork showing the atomic model with electrons in an orbit around the nucleus and looks like a vinyl record cover"This is Not an Atom"

 artwork showing pieces of two different types of clocks put together like puzzle pieces"Clocks"


Alice through the looking glass – two painting of Alice in Wonderland that are mirror reflections of each other"Alice Through the Looking Glass"

 artwork showing a sun and colourful M & M candies in a rainbow formation coming together in a prism"Taste the Science!"



  1. J. Lima, Unleashing the imagination in the natural sciences with the visual arts, 2016 ImaginED blog.
  2. J. Lima and J. Timm-Bottos, This is not a pipe: Incorporating art in the science curriculum. The Journal of Teaching and Learning (The STEAM issue), 2018, 11(2), 43-60. 
  3. J. Lima, Art, Science & Perception, ÉducArt Project, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2017.  
  4. J. Lima, The Art & Science project: Constructing knowledge through creative assessments, Learning Landscapes, 2016, 9(2), 399-416.
  5. The Art in Science Project, Ken Spencer Award booklet, 2017-2018
  6. J. Lima, Playing in the fields of Mars. ImaginED blog, 2017