Colorful Chemistry: A STEAM Activity Has Students Paint with the Power of Chemical Reactions

By Sullivan, P. Teal; Conner, L. D. Carsten et al. | Science and Children, April-May 2017 | Go to article overview

Colorful Chemistry: A STEAM Activity Has Students Paint with the Power of Chemical Reactions


Sullivan, P. Teal, Conner, L. D. Carsten, Guthrie, Mareca, Pompea, Stephen, Tsurusaki, Blakely K., Tzou, Carrie, Science and Children


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Look around! Notice the colors of your clothes, the walls of the room, and the graphics on this page. Now imagine yourself 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. The kinds of pigments we see today were not so readily available then. If early artists wanted a bright blue pigment, they had to find it or figure out how to make it. Art and science are intricately woven together throughout history, and this relationship is especially strong in the field of chemistry: Since the first human pulled a burned stick out of the fire to make charcoal marks on a cave wall, we have been harnessing chemical reactions to make the pigments we use to color the world around us (Finlay 2002). The desire for new materials with better characteristics and brighter colors drove many innovations in chemical sciences throughout history, and developments in chemistry have vastly expanded the colors available for making art (see Internet Resources for online exhibits exploring the history of pigments, both natural and manmade). The array of brilliant colors that pervade our lives today are the direct result of advances in chemistry and the universal human impulse to communicate visually.

This article describes a chemistry/art activity that originated in an National Science Foundation-funded two-week STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) academy for grade 4-6 girls. We recommend using this investigation in conjunction with other activities focusing on chemical change as a step toward fulfilling the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) performance expectation 5-PS1-4: Conduct an investigation to determine whether the mixing of two or more substances results in new substances (NGSS Lead States 2013). The investigation leverages the overlapping practices of art and science, including observation, experimentation, and the creation of solutions to design problems, as students use chemical reactions to develop a multicolored palette for painting.

Using acids and bases to change the color of red cabbage pigments, students explore the disciplinary core idea that mixing substances can result in chemical reactions that form new substances with different properties (NRC 2012, p. 109). Students are challenged to use their experimental results to create new pigment colors, engaging in art and science practices that require them to:

* classify materials based on observable properties

* identify the cause and effect of chemical change when combining substances

* generate design solutions based on observations

The use of cabbage juice as a pH indicator has a long tradition in elementary classroom activities (e.g., The GEMS guide Of Cabbages and Chemistry). While the 45-minute lesson described here is similar in some ways to other cabbage juice experiments, our approach and implementation is unique, as it challenges students to apply their knowledge of this chemical reaction to create art. Students thus engage in NGSS practices, as well as art practices that overlap with science.

What Do We Know About Chemical Reactions?

We engaged students by asking them to share their own experiences of mixing two or more different substances together, prompting them to consider how some combinations simply resulted in a mixture while other combinations formed new substances with different properties (see Internet Resources for the Compounds, Mixtures, and Chemical Reactions online activity to further explore the distinction between mixtures and chemical reactions).

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Students described mixing soil and water to make mud, mixing paints to make new colors, and many stories of mixing various ingredients in the kitchen. Student examples of mixing ingredients for cooking and baking provided an opportunity to question how we know a new substance has been formed. Students pointed out that they could see or feel the difference between the starting ingredients and the results. …

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