Example #76 Chemistry and Wonder

What if there were moments of wonder in chemistry?

Josh taught Secondary science and wanted his class to appreciate the beauty of chemical structures, not just learn them for an exam. He wanted them to see the beauty in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. So often he heard the phrase ‘So what?’ in the corridor and it saddened him that students were not more amazed by the world around them. He wanted them to experience some wonder at what God had made.

"I started the lesson on salts with a slide show of images of salt ranging from from crystals to salt lakes. Underneath every amazing photograph I put the heading ’just salt’. I talked briefly about how amazing salt is. I wanted to start with a ‘wow’ and stimulate the students to see the beauty in chemistry; too often it is perceived as dry formulae.

"The rest of the lesson I did not change much but I did change the worksheets the students used and put a global heading: ‘Just Salt?’ to one side to remind the students that ‘Just salt’ was an incredible substance. I checked the displays and made sure I had good images of salt displayed, they also had the heading ‘Just salt?’."

What’s going on here?

Josh saw chemistry as something that evoked awe and wonder at God’s world and a sense of reverence. He encouraged attentiveness to creation.

He engaged students by providing an experience of dissonance (between image and label) and encouraging a response of wonder and reflection.

He reshaped his practice by changing the way he introduced and framed the class, selecting images and captions to evoke wonder, and following through this emphasis on the display and worksheets.

How do I do this myself?

What does this have to do with faith, hope and love?

Josh’ faith meant he saw an everyday substance, salt, as an object of wonder. Faith changes the way in which Christians see the world: for Christians it is God’s world bearing the marks of a wise and good creator – even though the world is not now as God intended. A ‘so what’ attitude refuses to be impressed by the splendour and complexity of creation, failing to rise above the mundane and experience wonder.

What difference does it make?

By setting up dissonance using the title ‘just salt’ followed by amazing images Josh was challenging the ‘so what’ attitude that he felt was present among his students. The images that he used offered students a different way of experiencing the lesson content.

Where do we go from here?

The poet Francis Thompson talks of us being estranged from the world and missing the ‘many-spendoured thing’. Teachers can create moments of wonder in any subject so that students can experience the ‘many-splendoured thing’. That means there is potential for a spiritual experience in any subject.

Digging deeper

The ‘so what’ attitude can lead to a carelessness towards both the planet and its people. In contrast, an attitude of respect and wonder can lead to praise of God and care for what he has made. The psalmist (Psalm 19:1) sees the heavens and for him the stars speak of the glory of God. They are not ‘just stars’. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning talks of the earth being ‘crammed’ with heaven for those with eyes to see. For those who look with the eye of faith, God is in the ordinary and the extraordinary, God’s fingerprints are all over the world. Such looking can lead to reverence.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes of his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
From Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Mention spirituality and most people think in terms of something vague and other-worldly. In contrast, the spirituality of the Bible is a very earthed one. Matter – the stuff of this world – is given the thumbs up by God at creation when he declared the world ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). A relationship with God is expressed through the body, its senses, through thoughts, through people and the things of this world. Experience of God often comes the same way. For Moses it was a burning bush (Exodus 3:2-3) which he could have ignored but he chose to ‘turn aside’ and investigate. Francis Thompson and William Wordsworth both expressed the idea that 'heaven lies about us'.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
From The Kingdom of God by Francis Thompson

Explore similar examples:

What if a lesson on magnetism inspired wonder and curiosity?
What if labelling plants kept wonder in view?
What if learning about flowers led to wonder?
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1The heavens keep telling the wonders of God, and the skies declare what he has done. 2Each day informs the following day; each night announces to the next. 3They don't speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice. 4Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world. In the heavens a tent is set up for the sun. 5It rises like a bridegroom and gets ready like a hero eager to run a race. 6It travels all the way across the sky. Nothing hides from its heat. 7The Law of the Lord is perfect; it gives us new life. His teachings last for ever, and they give wisdom to ordinary people. 8The Lord 's instruction is right; it makes our hearts glad. His commands shine brightly, and they give us light. 9Worshipping the Lord is sacred; he will always be worshipped. All of his decisions are correct and fair. 10They are worth more than the finest gold and are sweeter than honey from a honeycomb. 11By your teachings, Lord, I am warned; by obeying them, I am greatly rewarded. 12None of us know our faults. Forgive me when I sin without knowing it. 13Don't let me do wrong on purpose, Lord, or let sin have control over my life. Then I will be innocent, and not guilty of some terrible fault. 14Let my words and my thoughts be pleasing to you, Lord , because you are my mighty rock and my protector. (A psalm by David for the music leader.) A prayer for victory
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was barren, with no form of life; it was under a roaring ocean covered with darkness. But the Spirit of God was moving over the water. 3God said, I command light to shine! And light started shining. 4God looked at the light and saw that it was good. He separated light from darkness 5and named the light Day and the darkness Night. Evening came and then morningthat was the first day. 6God said, I command a dome to separate the water above it from the water below it. 7And that's what happened. God made the dome 8and named it Sky. Evening came and then morningthat was the second day. 9God said, I command the water under the sky to come together in one place, so there will be dry ground. And that's what happened. 10God named the dry ground Land, and he named the water Sea. God looked at what he had done and saw that it was good. 11God said, I command the earth to produce all kinds of plants, including fruit trees and grain. And that's what happened. 12The earth produced all kinds of vegetation. God looked at what he had done, and it was good. 13Evening came and then morningthat was the third day. 14God said, I command lights to appear in the sky and to separate day from night and to show the time for seasons, special days, and years. 15I command them to shine on the earth. And that's what happened. 16God made two powerful lights, the brighter one to rule the day and the other to rule the night. He also made the stars. 17Then God put these lights in the sky to shine on the earth, 18to rule day and night, and to separate light from darkness. God looked at what he had done, and it was good. 19Evening came and then morningthat was the fourth day. 20God said, I command the sea to be full of living creatures, and I command birds to fly above the earth. 21So God made the giant sea monsters and all the living creatures that swim in the sea. He also made every kind of bird. God looked at what he had done, and it was good. 22Then he gave the living creatures his blessinghe told the sea creatures to live everywhere in the sea and the birds to live everywhere on earth. 23Evening came and then morningthat was the fifth day. 24God said, I command the earth to give life to all kinds of tame animals, wild animals, and reptiles. And that's what happened. 25God made every one of them. Then he looked at what he had done, and it was good. 26God said, Now we will make humans, and they will be like us. We will let them rule the fish, the birds, and all other living creatures. 27So God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women. 28God gave them his blessing and said: Have a lot of children! Fill the earth with people and bring it under your control. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and every animal on the earth. 29I have provided all kinds of fruit and grain for you to eat. 30And I have given the green plants as food for everything else that breathes. These will be food for animals, both wild and tame, and for birds. 31God looked at what he had done. All of it was very good! Evening came and then morningthat was the sixth day.
1One day, Moses was taking care of the sheep and goats of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, and Moses decided to lead them across the desert to Sinai, the holy mountain. 2There an angel of the Lord appeared to him from a burning bush. Moses saw that the bush was on fire, but it was not burning up. 3This is strange! he said to himself. I'll go over and see why the bush isn't burning up. 4When the Lord saw Moses coming near the bush, he called him by name, and Moses answered, Here I am. 5God replied, Don't come any closer. Take off your sandalsthe ground where you are standing is holy. 6I am the God who was worshipped by your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses was afraid to look at God, and so he hid his face. 7The Lord said: I have seen how my people are suffering as slaves in Egypt, and I have heard them beg for my help because of the way they are being ill-treated. I feel sorry for them, 8and I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians. I will bring my people out of Egypt into a country where there is good land, rich with milk and honey. I will give them the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live. 9My people have begged for my help, and I have seen how cruel the Egyptians are to them. 10Now go to the king! I am sending you to lead my people out of his country. 11But Moses said, Who am I to go to the king and lead your people out of Egypt? 12God replied, I will be with you. And you will know that I am the one who sent you, when you worship me on this mountain after you have led my people out of Egypt. 13Moses answered, I will tell the people of Israel that the God their ancestors worshipped has sent me to them. But what should I say, if they ask me your name? 14God said to Moses: I am the eternal God. So tell them that the Lord , whose name is I Am, has sent you. This is my name for ever, and it is the name that people must use from now on. 16Call together the leaders of Israel and tell them that the God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has appeared to you. Tell them I have seen how terribly they are being treated in Egypt, 17and I promise to lead them out of their troubles. I will give them a land rich with milk and honey, where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live. 18The leaders of Israel will listen to you. Then you must take them to the king of Egypt and say, The Lord God of the Hebrews has appeared to us. Let us walk three days into the desert, where we can offer a sacrifice to him. 19But I know that the king of Egypt won't let you go unless something forces him to. 20So I will use my mighty power to perform all kinds of miracles and strike down the Egyptians. Then the king will send you away. 21After I punish the Egyptians, they will be so afraid of you that they will give you anything you want. You are my people, and I will let you take many things with you when you leave the land of Egypt. 22Every Israelite woman will go to her Egyptian neighbours or to any Egyptian woman living in her house. She will ask them for gold and silver jewellery and for their finest clothes. The Egyptians will give them to you, and you will put these fine things on your sons and daughters. You will carry all this away when you leave Egypt. The Lord gives great power to Moses