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Integration at upper comprehensive school −
Natural colorants as a method for the integration of biology, chemistry, art and craft lessons

Riikka Räisänen, Marianne Sundvall and Päivi Kovanen
Department of Home Economics and Craft Science, University of Helsinki, Finland

Tuija Timonen and Anne Mäkelä
Etelä-Kaarela Upper Comprehensive School, City of Helsinki, Finland

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September 2003

Our school system is very divided. Different subjects are taught in their own lessons and seldom there is co-operation between subjects. Often theoretical subjects, for example chemistry, are experienced difficult and unattached to the reality and everyday life. Lately, there has been debate about increasing integration at schools. Integration between different subjects is desirable, since it enhances student's understanding of complete processes. One of the problems, however, at schools has been the lack of ideas. This paper explains simple methods for the integration of biology, chemistry, art and craft lessons at upper comprehensive school. In this research project, which is carried out in Etelä-Kaarela Upper Comprehensive School in Helsinki, Finland, we are interested in developing a curriculum for the integration of different subjects and teaching environmental issues. We chose natural colorants as a method, because it offers a many-sided approach for the integration. Dyes and colours is a theme, which is common and concrete to everyone. The curriculum contains the whole process from plants to isolation of pigments and further on from dyeing with the pigment powder to finished craft products. Our aim is that pupils can study a complete process from the very beginning till the end, which among other things trains persistent activity. Our interest is also to study how the integration of different subjects will affect student's motivation and learning.
The integration project is based on the doctoral thesis of Räisänen1, which was about the pigments of the fungus Dermocybe sanguinea and using them as dyes for textiles. In the thesis, the research problems were approached from the multidisciplinary point of view. Räisänen introduced simple methods for the isolation2 and characterisation3 of the anthraguinone pigments, and later became an idea that these methods could be used also at schools, in teaching chemistry. In autumn 2002 we started this two years integration project in co-operation between the University of Helsinki and the Etelä-Kaarela Upper Comprehensive School. We work with 7th graders, which are from 13 to 14 years old. In the first year, two students from the University of Helsinki, Section of Craft Science and Textiles Teacher Education took part in the project. They did their final teacher training being responsible for the craft lessons.


Biology classes start with a field tour, during which pupils collect and identify plants or fungi. In the case of fungi, most species form mycorrhizae with trees. Thus, the symbiosis between a tree and fungus can be explained and demonstrated. The themes that can be included in the biology classes are forest biology and ecology. Cell structure and function of enzymes are important topics to be discussed as well.
In chemistry, the coloured pigments of plants or fungi are isolated in powder form and the compounds are identified. Simple chemicals, equipment and techniques are needed for the isolation and characterisation processes.2,3 Anthraquinone compounds can be separated from each other using two-dimensional thin layer chromatography. The compounds can be identified from the silica plate comparing the Rf-values and the observed colours of the spots with those mentioned in the literature. Some chemical and physical aspects of dyeing processes may be discussed in chemistry lessons.
Printing and dyeing designs are created in art lessons. Pupils will thus have more time to concentrate on this important stage. Furthermore, they realise that different art techniques may be used also in textile designing.
In crafts, the isolated pigment powder is used to dye or print wool and silk materials. In addition to isolated pigment powder, other natural materials, e.g. plants, barks and roots, may be used as sources of dyes. This enables the use of wider range of coloured materials. Dyed materials, yarn or fabric are completed into final products.

The first round of our project

We have accomplished the first round of our two years project. Because of the very dry summer 2002, we had no fungi in the autumn. We decided to use madder instead. Madder contains similar anthraquinone pigments than Dermocybe sanguinea and can be worked with the same chemical methods. We left biology out of the plan and started with chemistry, which we had all together 10 hours. Pupils had chemistry classes five times and each time they worked for two hours.

In the beginning of the first two lessons pupils were told about the whole integration project. The main subject of the becoming chemistry lessons was isolation and separation methods. The pupils were explained shortly what isolation and separation methods are and what they are for. Furthermore, they were told about the history of natural dyes. Some environmental and ecological aspects of natural dyes were highlighted. In the end of the two hours period pupils weighed and grained madder. They prepared the buffer solution, which was used for the isolation of the pigments from madder. Pupils poured the buffer solution over madder, and the mixture was let to stand till the next week.

In the third and fourth chemistry lessons, the puffer solution was filtered. To demonstrate dyeing properties of anthraquinone pigments, small pieces of yarn were immersed into a small volume of the filtrate. The rest of the filtrate was saved for the craft lessons. The root mass that was left after filtration was extracted with NaOH-solution until there was no colour in the solution. Anthraquinone pigments were precipitated by lowering the pH of the NaOH-solution.

In the fifth and sixth chemistry lessons, precipitated anthraquinone pigments were filtered and let to dry. Obtained pigment powder was saved for the craft lessons.

In the last four lessons, the anthraquinones of the pigment powder were separated by two-dimensional thin layer chromatography using the method explained in the paper of Räisänen et al.3

The art lessons were combined to craft. Three hours were reserved for designing a pattern for the cover of the slipper. Everyone painted a big aquarelle and then searched an interesting spot from the painting using a window, a hole in a paper (Picture 1). The area under the window gave the pattern for the rug technique, which was used to complete the covers of the slippers. In the craft lessons, pupils dyed woollen yarn with the isolated pigment powder and also with madder roots. In order to obtain more colours, dried leaves of birch trees, European aspens and lupines were used for dyeing. Everyone chose yarns for the covers according to her design. First the covers of the slippers were completed using rug technique. Then the bottoms of the slippers were cut from other fabric. The pieces were sawn together and the slippers were completed.

Picture 1

Some results of the first round

We will have the final results after the second year. However, it seems that the project was meaningful and interesting for pupils. Also, pupils though that it is possible to learn more and better using this kind of projects than using traditional learning in different subjects. In the project, the role of the teachers was important and pupils though that the teachers gave them enough help and encouragement. The most encouraging thing for pupils was making something concrete with their own hands. Many of them liked the craft lessons the most. The part of art was quite small in this project. However, pupils liked the aquarelle technique combined with the window. It was something what they would have not thought themselves. They thought that the pattern was thus more artistic, more different and they liked it. Chemistry was difficult to understand and pupils would have wished more explanation about why different steps, separations and reactions were made. However, pupils thought that chemistry was more interesting when it was connected to something concrete and when it was part of the greater completeness. Integration of different subjects and problem-based learning seems to require organising more than regular teaching. Our problem was that only a small part of the pupils were able to take part into the whole project: for example boys did not take part into the art and craft lessons.


The first round of the two years project has been finished. The work has shown that integration between different subjects is meaningful for both pupils and teachers. Especially, the pupils dedicated themselves to the project. They used the words "we" and "us" more often, when talking about the project. We had opportunities to organise several exhibitions of the working processes and the final products. The first exhibition was in the greenhouse of the Botanical Garden of the University of Helsinki. The place was perfect to show a project of natural dyeing. We held an opening ceremony with the pupils in an excited atmosphere. In our opinion, learning through a project is meaningful and interesting. It is possible to learn for life.


The authors thank Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation for financial support to this study.


1. Räisänen, R. 2002. Anthraquinones from the Fungus Dermocybe sanguinea as Textile Dyes. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Helsinki. Department of Home Economics and Craft Science Research Report 10. Vantaa: Dark.

2. Hynninen, P. H., Räisänen, R., Elovaara, P. and Nokelainen, E., Preparative isolation of anthraquinones from the fungus Dermocybe sanguinea using enzymatic hydrolysis by the endogenous b -glucosidase, Zeitschrift für Naturforschung. 55c, 600-610 (2000).

3. Räisänen, R., Björk, H. and Hynninen, P. H., Two-dimensional TLC separation and mass spectrometric identification of anthraquinoes isolated from the fungus Dermocybe sanguinea, Zeitschrift für Naturforschung 55c, 195-202 (2000)

This document was added to the Education-line database on 11 December 2003