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Chemistry and Conflict: Illuminating Standards Video Series

Tenth grade students from San Diego, CA created a professional-quality book that fuses chemistry and history in an exploration of the power of chemical elements and compounds to shape our world. In science and humanities classes, students explored how chemical substances, such as carbon, have been instrumental in human progress and conflict.The book is illustrated with student-created, oxidized copper etchings. This film asks the question: What if learning in school was like learning in life?  Illuminates CCSS ELA standard WHST.9-10.2.

The Illuminating Standards Project

In the last two decades of the ‘standards movement’ in American public education, many educators have concluded that ‘teaching to the standards’ and project-based learning are incompatible. Ron Berger (EL Education) and Steve Seidel (Harvard Graduate School of Education), co-directors of The Illuminating Standards Project, wondered if this conclusion was true. Indeed, they speculated that long-term, interdisciplinary, arts-infused, community-connected projects may well be one of the best ways to actually see what state standards look like when fully realized in the things students make in school—to make the standards visible.

Three questions frame the work of The Illuminating Standards Project:
- What does it look like when state standards are met with integrity, depth, and imagination?
- How can we use standards to open up and enrich curriculum, rather than narrow and constrain it?
- How can we use student work to raise the level of our understanding of standards and our dialogue about them?

The Videos

Collaborating with Berger and Seidel on The Illuminating Standards Project, over 30 students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have explored these questions by choosing projects from the Student Work Archive in the Center for Student Work and considering the ways in which those projects did—and didn’t—meet specific state standards. Further, they examined how the student work illuminated the standards—and vice versa. Many of those students created short films and 13 of those films are presented here.

We invite you to watch these films and we encourage you to use them as the catalyst for discussions with your colleagues about the relationship between your commitment to meet demanding state standards and approaches to designing powerful learning experiences for our students.


- Sometimes we go through our studies and see the world in highly compartmentalized ways, so I think that the value of this kind of interdisciplinary work is to decompartmentalize and show inner connections so that the students don’t leave their education believing that history is not related to chemistry in any way. Well, it is, and it needs some thought to find those connections, but they’re there. The world is a complex place. Perhaps in short, the interdisciplinary aspect of this work demonstrates the complexity of the world.

- [Narrator] In pairs, 10th graders conducted chemical experiments to learn about various elements and compounds. Then they headed to the library to research historical and contemporary war and conflicts, making all kinds of connections between history and science and current events. Next, students produced lengthy argument and descriptive papers based on their research. Each paper went through an extensive critique and editing process. First, each paper had to satisfy a student-run editorial board. Then, humanities teacher Peter Jana and science teacher Daisy Sharap read the drafts and provided feedback. Some papers went through 16 drafts. Then students put on their artistic hats and created an original artwork illustrating their chemical and conflict. Even the artwork was a science project, as students etched copper plates and oxidized the copper to produce spellbinding art science creations. The project culminated in a public presentation where students articulated to families in the community just how interconnected the chemical world and the social world really are. And finally, Chemistry and Conflict was published into a sleek, professional-quality book available to the public for purchase. When learning in school is complex, challenging, interconnected, then school becomes a different place. More engaging, more relevant, more connected.

- [Peter] I think Chemistry and Conflict is an example of how project-based learning can align with the common core. The common core’s emphasis on argument writing and the common core’s emphasis on nonfiction texts is in Chemistry and Conflict.

- [Narrator] Students write informative, explanatory texts including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures experiments, or technical processes.

- So, if you look at the amount of writing in Chemistry and Conflict and the type of writing they did in Chemistry and Conflict, I think the compatibility with common core ELA standards are fairly obvious. What we tried to do with Chemistry in Conflict was show the interconnectedness of the world, and how society and history is related to things that we typically don’t consider to be within the realm of society or history. One of the important takeaways, I think, is that we can combine in our teaching rigor and style. These things do not have to be separate. Critics often claim that there’s a tension between style and substacne in project-based learning, and I think that’s an illegitimate critique, but the response to that is to do projects that do both, and that’s what we attempted to do with Chemistry and Conflict.

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