Education Talks: Arts and technology bring science to life

What does paper look like at the microscopic level? And what does chemistry have in common with music? Between digital tools and ‘STEAM’, science lessons are becoming more engaging, and students are gaining a more holistic understanding of the world. Carla Morais, assistant professor at the University of Porto, Portugal, talks about the latest research on these topics.

How can digital tools have an impact on science teaching and learning?

I'm working specifically in chemistry education, and in chemistry education we need to deal with different levels of understanding. We need to use information that comes from the macroscopic level, things that we can see – by observation we can have this information. But we need to work in the microscopic level as well: what is going on inside of the substances, inside of the materials. And for example, for young students, it's very difficult to understand what is going on in a microscopic level because they are not able to see. But when we can use, for example, simulations and animations, they can understand the process. We can model some products, and make them think in an abstract way: ah, okay, we have these inside of water, we have that inside of a piece of paper.

What are the different attitudes to digital tools within the science teaching community?

We have teachers that are very confident, very motivated, and they feel very able to integrate digital media or multimedia in general inside of their classroom or inside of their practices. They realise different kinds of integration of the digital media. They can understand that we can use them to motivate students, we can use them to consolidate some knowledge, we can use them as a complement of the laboratorial activities, we can use them to make students understand the microscopic level of everything inside of science.

But you have a second part or a second group. We have teachers that say: “So, you know, technology, it’s a waste of time. I’m sorry to say this, but it's a waste of time. We have a big curriculum; we need to address a lot of concepts, a lot of topics, and to use technology, it’s very difficult for me, I will not have enough time to finish everything that I need.” Another point that is important to address is that some of the teachers are not very confident about using technology. “Even though I recognise some advantage, I don't feel comfortable to use it.” And I'm talking more about online technologies.

What are the benefits of taking a ‘STEAM’ approach – integrating the arts with science and technology?

I’m really happy with this new approach: STEAM or STEM. But I need to go a little bit back, because in science education, since a long time ago, we have been trying to make strong connections among science, technology, society and the environment, and I think STEAM is just a new way to put things and to emphasise how arts can be important in this connection. In the past, since the Renaissance, we have had connections between science and arts, but I think the problem is we are not very aware about these connections, and we keep putting science in one box, arts in another box, math or engineering in another one. And I think the challenge for teachers, for educators, for everyone – for students as well – is to understand that we live in one planet and we need to have a global and systematic and holistic understanding of the planet. And of course, if I have science, if I have technology, if I have arts, I can understand the same thing better. It is just different perspectives.

For example, in chemical education and in my university right now, we have two projects or two research [studies] that we are carrying out. One of them is to use analogies between chemistry and music in order to help students that are in middle school to start and to understand introductory chemistry. They are students that are in musical schools: they are studying music and they know a lot of music, but they don't know a lot of chemistry. And the idea is to use music that they already know to help them to understand chemistry – what is going on in chemistry. And I think we are having very good results. And another project that we had was to use poetry to help students to understand chemistry.

I think we need to catch this challenge and the difficulty can seem: how can I put everything together? How can I have a situation and how can I explore the situation, taking into account all of these different perspectives? But I think it’s not a problem, it’s just a challenge – because a lot of advantages come from this exploration.