Tattoos link chemistry education with society

An artist applies a tattoo to skin

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For many years there has been debate about who science education is for and what its purpose actually is. While there is no doubt that we need to train the scientists of the future, we also need to be mindful of the fact that the majority of students are not going to study science at a higher level. For this group of students, science isn’t always popular due to a perceived lack of relevance. Stuckey and Eilks have worked with a group of teachers in Germany to develop a lesson plan which introduces the chemistry of tattoos with links to the wider societal issues associated with topic, resulting in positive impacts on student engagement.

The authors applied a new theoretical framework to the design of the intervention which takes account of individual, societal and vocational dimensions of relevance. The topic of tattooing fits well with this framework, being a chemistry-related issue which presents society with a range of questions and also carries a vocational element. The article provides some interesting background, noting that until relatively recently tattoos were the preserve of minority groups such as prisoners and sailors. In recent decades, however, tattoos have become increasingly popular, particularly among younger people. In Germany, 20% of 14–24 year olds have a tattoo, and the prevalence is even higher in the US. A key issue is the fact that youngsters are not fully aware of the risks and consequences of being tattooed, and these issues are addressed in this sequence of four lessons.

A total of 118 9th grade pupils took part in the study, which began with questionnaires probing perceptions regarding tattoos and the applied pedagogies, as well as learner motivation. Activities included a magazine-style self-test which classified students’ level of interest in tattoos, practical work which shed light on the stability and toxicity of different types of tattoo ink, and opportunities for discussion and reflection. Evaluation showed that the intervention was highly motivating for students, with the practical element being particularly enlightening. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many students stating a  new-found appreciation of the relevance of chemistry to themselves and to society. The findings will be of interest to those wishing to implement context- and inquiry-based approaches, and those who wish to engage in similar participatory action research projects.