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Using Visual Art as your NGSS Phenomenon - The Chemistry of Cyanotype

An important part of any Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) unit is the Anchoring Phenomenon, something from the "real world" that allows students to connect the science they are learning in class to something more tangible. By giving students and teachers something to connect to the phenomenon facilitates the shift in thinking from a content-driven science learning experience to a process-driven one. An anchoring phenomenon is discussed, analyzed and interpreted several times throughout the unit in different ways so that students become familiar enough with it so that they can focus on the process of science in the context of the phenomenon, rather than just the knowledge of science.

Choosing your Anchoring Phenomenon

There are many ways in which you can choose your Anchoring Phenomenon for your unit, many textbooks and resources (such as Amplify) come with a pre-determined phenomenon for you, and you can find suggestions on The Wonder of Science grouped by NGSS standard. When I first began to teach using Anchoring Phenomena in my Grade 9 & 10 Integrated Science classes I would look up ideas on The Wonder of Science and then find a video or image that students could examine. Over the last couple of years I have tried to move towards more local connections, ties to field trips, other courses, sports activities &/or phenomena which I could demonstrate "live" in my classroom. I have found that this makes the phenomenon even more tangible for my students and it is my goal to ensure that all of my phenomena are "local" in the future.

Connecting Visual Art & Science

At my current school in Morocco the secondary Visual Arts teacher is a close friend and colleague, we tend to bounce ideas off of each other and since both of our classrooms are on the third floor we check in almost every day. For this reason I have been much more in the loop about the happenings in Visual Art than I have been at previous schools and it was a couple of years ago that I realized just how many connections there are between Visual Art and Chemistry. Since both Grade 9 and Grade 10 Visual Arts students do cyanotype every year I decided to use this process as my Chemistry anchoring phenomenon in Grade 10 Integrated Science. I spent some time talking to Kym Bottomley, our amazing Visual Arts teacher and she helped me to find a good video to introduce cyanotype to any students who might not have taken Visual Art. This video from the George Eastman Museum does an excellent job connecting Science and the Cyanotype Process.

This slide was created by my art teacher colleague Kym Bottomley you can find her amazing photography at @marcoandco on Instagram.

The Cyanotype Process

This chemical reaction uses iron salts to produce a blue image, Prussian blue in fact. The two reactants can be purchased from most chemical supply or photography supply companies in powder form or even as prepared solutions. To create a cyanotype image simply mix equal parts of both solutions (ferric ammonium citrate & potassium ferricyanide) and brush them evenly onto thick paper. Then allow the paper to dry somewhere dark, ideally overnight.

When you have a bright and sunny day take some time to find some objects you would like to use to create your image, botanicals such as leaves, flowers and twigs work well, you can also use shapes cut out of paper or other random found objects. You can even make acetate negatives of photographs by printing the mirror images of a photograph on acetate paper. Place your paper chemical side-up in the sun with your objects or negative placed on top of the paper in your chosen arrangement (take the time to arrange them inside, out of the sun). It is a good idea to place a piece of thick glass over the paper and the objects to ensure a clean edge. Expose the cyanotype to sunlight for a few minutes, the actual time will vary based on the intensity of the sunlight. You should notice the paper change from yellow to blueish to pale grey in colour.

To get the final Prussian blue colour you need only wash the paper in running water or a large tub, this will give you a final lovely blue colour that will deepen as the paper dries. You can experiment with the exposure time, chemical concentration and object placement to get a variety of effects, check out some cool ideas in the examples below. Have fun & use your knowledge of chemistry to express your creativity!

Some of my former Grade 10 Science students have allowed me to share their Cyanotype for your enjoyment, check out the variety of images they created in this collaborative unit. Make note of the various techniques and media they used to further develop their cyanotype... salt, alcohol, toning with various substances, gouache on top of cyanotype. There is so much potential here! Thanks for sharing Calypso Ruë-Simon, Neil, Arminda, Lougena & Hassan!

How I incorporate the Cyanotype Phenomenon into my Grade 10 Chemistry Unit

The very first day of every unit in my Integrated Science class involves a lot of foundational tasks, one of the most important of which is introducing the anchoring phenomenon. In every unit students will make a notebook template like the one pictured to the right, there is a guiding question about the phenomenon and space for reflections before the unit begins as well as for at the end of the unit.

Once students copy this template into their notebooks we watch a short video clip or a live demonstration of the phenomenon. In the case of Cyanotype we watch the George Eastman Museum video clip and the Visual Arts students describe the process to the class. During the video & discussion students write down what they "Notice/Wonder" about the phenomenon. Then they attempt to answer the question, in this case the question is "How does control of chemical reactions allow for artistic expression and creativity?" based only on their prior knowledge. At the end of the unit they come back to see how they can apply their learning to answer the question in more detail than before, demonstrating their learning.

To ensure that students learn about the science behind the phenomenon, I incorporate it into lessons throughout the unit, you can.see some examples in the slide below. One of the first concepts we learn in this particular Chemistry unit is that of percent composition, so I have my students think about how this might be useful in determining the purity of the reactants in the cyanotype process and then have them apply their skills to calculate the percent composition of hydrogen and carbon in the two reactants. I try to use the cyanotype reaction as an example whenever possible in my lessons over the course of the entire unit.

Since the anchoring phenomenon is so important to the unit I always include at least one test question about it, so students get in the habit of reviewing the phenomenon as they prepare for their summative assessment. This also encourages me to include it consistently throughout the entire unit, not just at the beginning. Here is an example of a test question I have given in the past about cyanotype. Notice how it focuses on the process of Chemistry rather than just memorizing content.

Finding Inspiration at your School

If you're looking to incorporate more local phenomena into your NGSS Science class I highly recommend talking to the Visual Arts, Music and PE teachers as there are many phenomena for Chemistry, Physics and Biology in these courses. You can also find connections in the History or Social Studies classes as well as in student projects and field trips. The best way to discover a new phenomenon is to talk to your colleagues, keep your eyes and ears open and your standards in mind. You never know what you might find! You can even send an email or announce at a faculty meeting that you are looking for a connection with a concept such as collisions for Physics or medicine for Biology and see what you discover.

Good luck in finding new phenomena for your classes & feel free to use Cyanotype if you are lucky enough to find a great Art teacher to collaborate with. Thanks Ms. B!

Thanks for reading teachers, travelers & curious souls of all kinds.

The Roaming Scientist



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I'm the kind of teacher who is always trying something new, new labs, new Apps, new scaffolds and even new countries to live and teach in. I'm looking forward to share what I learn with you all through my weekly blog posts. 

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