Professor, students find art in chemistry

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsIn a marriage of art and science, all 1,300 members of Chemistry professor Mark Workentin’s Organic Chemistry 2213 have been asked to compose a piece that depicts chemical structures as an art form – and then post it to Twitter with the hashtag #orgo2213art.

Science is science. Art is art.

Two. Separate. Disciplines. Except when they’re not.

Chemistry professor Mark Workentin’s students are merging the two disciplines in a novel project that harnesses their scholarly imaginations. All 1,300 members of Organic Chemistry 2213 have been asked to compose a piece that depicts chemical structures as an art form – and then post it to Twitter with the hashtag #orgo2213art.

“Science isn’t all about books and reports. It’s creativity, expressing yourself creatively,” Workentin said. “No matter who you are, to be a good scientist you need to be creative.”

In the first week alone, about 100 students have come through with rap songs, videos, illustrations and photos that are by turns whimsical, thought-provoking and even vulnerable:

The project is optional but comes with a 2 per cent bonus mark for participants.

Last year, in a similar project, when Workentin urged students to produce an infographic showing chemistry in their everyday lives, 98 per cent of the class did.

He doesn’t know of any other class where this takes place on a large scale, although he drew inspiration from Maria Gallardo-Williams, a chemistry professor at North Carolina University whose much smaller class of about 20 did similar projects.

Examining each submission is time-consuming – Workentin also comments on many of them from his Twitter account – but rewarding. Each week, he chooses the five best projects and invites those students to have ‘Coffee with the Prof.’

The second-year class is designed for non-Chemistry majors. “We’re covering a lot of material and sometimes it’s not clear to them why they’re learning what they’re learning,” he said.

This project helps provide both context and application. “I tell them, there is a connection with organic chemistry somewhere in your lives, through song, art, drawing.”

He has encountered little resistance but some reluctance. “Some students have said, ‘I’m not artistic. I don’t know what to do.’ I say, ‘How do you know you’re not artistic?’ I just started painting and I wish I’d started when I was their age or younger.”

The projects also help build other skills. Last year, several students told him they learned how to use design tools in Canva, how to edit video in iMovie and illustrations in Photoshop – tools they then brought to other classes and other disciplines.

They’re also required to display their art on their own Twitter accounts, even though few ordinarily use the platform. “I know Twitter is not the social media of their choice, but the chemistry community has a strong Twitter presence for research and ideas and has a broad reach.”

As examples, some of these illustrations have been retweeted by chemists from across the world, including by the Royal Society of Chemists.

By being a part of Twitter, the students also get a chance to know more about their professor’s research group and work and interests. “You (as students) get to know your instructor beyond the front of the room.”

Educators have increasingly focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, but have sometimes de-emphasized the fourth element of the quintet, he said. “We’re putting the A back in STEAM.”

He offered few guidelines, except that their work had to include some element of organic chemistry. “I’m like, ‘Impress me.’ Some are really investing some thought and time into it.”

Working well ahead of the November deadline, some students have come up with eye-popping designs.

One person drew themselves with a trans flag that showed the molecular image of testosterone on a transgender flag. Another rapped her submission:

“I get my day started waking up with serotonin; take one look at my clock and epinephrine starts flowin’”

Two students brought video work to their project by showing their homemade recipe for casein – a milk protein they derived from heating milk, adding vinegar and then straining the product through a cloth. Then they ‘drew’ the molecular structure with the casein bits they’d created.

Workentin said the course covers essentially the same ground he has taught for 25 years, so students’ creativity energizes him as well. “I do my best to show my enthusiasm for the topic. This is one way to keep it fresh for me.”