The inspiration for this project came from a “thing biography” display at a Los Angeles bookstore, exploring topics ranging from salt to political ideologies, written from various disciplinary perspectives. We asked ourselves, Why not have students create ‘thing biographies’ that integrate chemistry and history, where they study elements and chemical compounds that played a role in historical and contemporary conflicts, and produce a beautiful book?

Working in pairs, students explored connections between a historical and a modern conflict. They explored a variety of topics, from the use of uranium during the Cold War arms race to the exploitation of coltan in the Congo today. They created copper etchings, conducted library research, wrote lengthy history chapters, and developed their own mini-projects related to a contemporary conflict. They also engaged in an extensive critique and editing process and had to satisfy a student-run editorial board before teachers even read their drafts.