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It Works! Integrating Mathematics and Chemistry in Alberta

by Deborah Miller
January 2001

deborah I can recall the moment when Karen found meaning in the lesson on slopes in our math-science class. The students had collected their own air-table data that tracked the motion of an air puck, then had plotted distance-time graphs. The line on Karen's graph was steeper than Garry's, and they were arguing about who had the "right" data. What was the same about the graphs? How were the data collected? Was every variable the same? Karen declared with confidence that the differences in the graphs were acceptable but that her puck was faster, resulting in the greater slope. At Garry's blank look, she proved that the slope must be the speed because the units obtained when finding slope were the same as the units for speed. Since her graph showed more slope, her puck was faster. Karen was right.

Moments like that one happen in all classrooms. They happen less often, unfortunately, in many mathematics classes because the context for the practice of mathematics is often contrived and artificial. Little practical work is done in many classes to allow students to own the measurements that they use in developing mathematical principles. It takes time and often doesn't "work out." Instead, problems are provided in worksheets and in textbooks. To make the mathematics concepts clearer for the student, the scenery seems to have been pruned, leaving a stark and sometimes terrifying landscape.

A colleague and I blended mathematics and chemistry curricula as we taught two relatively constant groups of students each through three years. The persistent and integrated course was a huge success; it generated surprising benefits for students and teachers. As teachers, we found that we were energized and that we worked more efficiently. Planning took less time than it previously had. We developed professionally, teaching each other and learning together as we worked. We came to understand much more about our own specialty. We learned to look outside our disciplines to enrich the meaning of our own.

Like Karen, most of our students were very comfortable using one subject to support learning in the other. They began looking to other disciplines to enrich meaning in ours. They trusted us as we planned, sometimes in front of the class, to blend the curricula to enrich their experiences. A word of caution here, though. We found that in many places in both curricula, no reasonable opportunity existed to blend the courses, and we made that fact clear to students. Artificial and contrived integration has a flavor that the students detect and reject readily.

The classroom is the core of any school, and the teacher and students share a potentially powerful relationship. Change must begin in the classroom, where curriculum provides the tension in the student-teacher relationship. Encouraging integration as a way to bring innovation to a teaching practice develops professional relationships and strengthens the learning experiences for both students and teachers.


Deborah Miller has taught chemistry for 20 years in Alberta and has recently completed a master's degree in educational leadership from Brigham Young University. She is the curriculum leader for science at Sir Winston Churchill High School in Calgary.



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