Art and Chemistry

Residency: Rachel Scanlon at Nether Hall School

By Rachel Scanlon

Throughout April to June I completed my 18 day SENsory Atelier residency with Attenborough Arts Centre at Nether Hall school. Working alongside Chemistry student Asmaa Abdalla, we combined our practices to embed science in sensory exploration.

As a visual artist in education I have worked on a number of cross-curricular Art and Science projects in the past and can see the similarities. Both subjects encourage children to ask questions and notice the world around them more; inspiring curiosity and igniting a spark of creative thinking. Chemistry invites children to experiment, hypothesise and use their hands to create something practical; much like art.

Our initial conversations were around enabling the pupils to do any practical experiments themselves to really empower them. We discussed making sure the materials we used were safe, low risk, yet could really spark their interest by creating a “wow” moment.

We worked with 3 sixth form groups; one SLD class, one PMLD class, and a group made up of pupils from 3 classes that had a sensory interest; so needed to tailor the sessions to suit the differing abilities and interests of the groups.

The SLD class are really able, and were keen to do hands-on experiments, so was their fantastic teacher (who used to be the Science Lead at the school). During the residency we made self-inflating balloons (add links?), home-made lava lamps, erupting volcanoes, cyanotype prints, stress balls, and glow-in-the-dark lava lamps.

Some students were really interested in the science, so Asmaa included the scientific terms with the experiments. The vinegar and baking soda (used to inflate the balloons, and to create volcanoes) is also called sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid, when mixed they create a solution which releases Carbon dioxide, water and sodium acetate. Some students could remember doing similar experiments with their teacher when they were younger, one boy could even remember the gas produced.

Asmaa also showed the learners the chemical formula that was happening here; NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2 → NaC2H3O2 + H2CO3.

Or kept it simple; a sold and a liquid mixing to release a gas.

We included the different levels of the terminology as well as the experiments to allow different access points for each student.

The other two groups I worked with during the residency have very differing abilities to this class, so to really embed the science in their sessions I pulled a few chemistry threads from the science sessions to bring to their sensory exploration sessions. There is a cross over with the materials used, sounds, touch and the feelings they evoked.

  • I created a close up film of the lava lamps with relaxing music, this was then shown on the white board with the other groups or projected onto fabric or the wall. One student in the PMLD class was completely absorbed just watching the lava lamp film as it changed from blue to yellow, while we blew scented bubbles towards her, creating a more immersive environment.
  • Another student with very low vision enjoyed sitting in the projection and “catching” the yellow light as the film came around to the really bright scene, and repeat. She would pause just enough to catch the light on her eyes, before carrying on moving her head to the music.
  • I showed both of the other groups the real lava lamp experiment, gave them torches to shine through or shone torches myself. They definitely caught the eye and interest of the more sensory pupils, there were some “wow” moments where the children stopped what they were doing and focused on the coloured bubbles.
  • To reflect the floaty feel of the lava lamp bubbles we used feathers and tissue paper circles/confetti which floated really slowly when released. Children anticipated when they would fall as we said “ready, 1, 2, 3” before letting go. Sometimes they sat under clear umbrellas while they were released and could watch them float and slide along the outside, or in the individual sensory hoops that had materials hung around like the bubbles in the jar
  • We used bubble-like water-beads and sequins in coloured water to make sensory bottles we could study with torches, added baby oil to make the objects inside move slower.
  • We darkened the room and used torches with coloured cellophane, stuck cellophane onto clear acetate to make our own coloured goggles and look around. Using an OHP to shine large images onto the wall.
  • Cyanotype paper, also known as sun paper, changes colour under natural sunlight or UV light. We collected natural objects from the outdoor space, and along with some more man-made shapes such as geometric sequins, we arranged them on the cyanotype paper, and left them in the sun outside.
  • The thread here that I carried forward to the sensory groups was the colour changing and the UV light. I painted panels in heat changing paint, and we explored touching them using a hot water bottle or using ice to change the temperature of our body before we touched the panels. We experimented with glow in the dark paint, glow sticks and UV torches. A pupil discovered the torch close up heated the paint enough to make it change colour too.
  • One boy enjoyed having a balloon with a bell inside and holding it on his ear while shaking it – the sound reverberated and intensified.
  • We used drums, and connected to some students by simply throwing a ball onto a drum repeatedly, with them returning the ball in the same way.
  • We used a number of these resources to paint with – balls, balloons, feathers, as ways of transferring paint onto paper – adding shaving foam and textures to increase the sensory exploration. Including sand, coloured rice, cooked spaghetti and play dough.
  • We used shadows and puppets with the OHP or video projectors, coloured gels changing the colour of the room. We experimented with sensory bags containing hair gel and coloured oil and what happened when light went through them.
  • Tonic water glows under UV light, so we revisited the lava lamp experiment. Also had the chance to play with glow-sticks, light up corrugated tubes and glow in the dark painted paper – tearing it into shapes and shining the UV torch on them.

Staff were really supportive and guided us to notice sometimes small moments that were very particular to those students – but showed learning, development and a real interest.

The timescale also helped with the project, being over the whole term so we could really get to know the pupils, know how to arrange the space to suit them, know distractions to avoid and how to catch their interest to help them engage with a full session.

This residency produced a resource for teachers and educators available as a free download below.


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