Two teenagers holding two tile circles that look like a tree when next to each other.
Students hold up their freshly painted frescos. (VCU College of Engineering)

Off the wall, Italian frescos become a canvas of hands-on learning in VCU-led curriculum for high school students

Chemistry, engineering and world history come together as College of Engineering professor James Ferri champions STEM’s relevance to modern challenges.

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In vibrant and brilliant color, Italian frescos are both art and science. Beyond their walls – and through creativity from Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering – more than 2,000 high school students from Virginia Beach to Miami Beach have learned a hands-on lesson with real-world application.

In 2021, James Ferri, Ph.D., professor and associate chair in the college’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, began work on a transdisciplinary approach to add relevance to chemistry education. Ferri and Rachel White, Ph.D., the former Governor’s STEM Academy coordinator at Landstown High School in the Virginia Beach Public Schools system, co-authored a curriculum highlighting the intersection of chemistry, engineering and world history through the life cycle of Italian frescos.

A fresco is much more than paint on a wall – there is an important chemical process beneath the surface. At its simplest, painting a fresco involves applying pigments to wet plaster. As the plaster dries, a chemical reaction occurs between the plaster, the pigments and the atmospheric carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate crystals. These crystals create a durable bond, solidifying the pigment and protecting the fresco from fading and peeling over time.

Ferri named the new curriculum CReST – Culturally Relevant STEM Education – and students learn the fresco life cycle by creating, painting and conserving a fresco using nanotechnology. CReST offers a meaningful link between STEM concepts and real-world, societal challenges like cultural heritage conservation, and it uses test questions from both chemistry and world history in Virginia’s Standards of Learning to measure students’ educational outcomes.

“We are enhancing the tangibility of the Standards of Learning,” Ferri said. “We want to introduce students to the impact of STEM, and specifically chemistry and engineering, on societal challenges to help provide relevance to their learning experience. The goal is for students to pursue this breadth of education and find a passion for chemistry and engineering that they might not have otherwise.”

The CReST support curriculum, which occurs over six instructional days and three calendar weeks, has three threads: the historical and cultural context, STEM concepts from chemistry and engineering, and experiential learning. That hands-on component – creating and chemically preserving their own frescos – has particular resonance for students.

“It was very nice to be able to create something with the background of chemistry knowledge I gained, and it’s not just building robots,” one student said. “Engineering includes working with your hands on stuff that’s chemical and real – it’s not just this preconceived notion of what STEM must be.”

The CReST curriculum was first implemented in the Virginia Beach and Miami-Dade County public school systems. Since its inception, more than 2,000 high school students have learned through its integration of chemistry, engineering and world history. In 2022, Ferri and the VCU College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering were named a model partner of the Virginia Beach school system.

After the pilot implementation of the program, Ferri saw an opportunity for a more in-depth experience, and he planned a professional development trip to Florence, Italy, for five high school teachers. The weeklong program – filled with visits to renowned museums and cultural institutions, including a tour of the cultural conservation center labs at the University of Firenze – offered a first-hand, immersive lesson on the power chemistry holds in preserving world history.