Polyamides – a spiders story

Today in class my students were learning about condensation polymerisation reactions, in particular the synthesis of the polyamides nylon and kelvar.

One of the most exciting developments in the search for strong materials is spider silk. Spider silk is much stronger and lighter than steel, is biodegradable and has antibacterial properties (can be used for wound dressing).

In this connect-extend-challenge routine inquiry is the focus. The students prior knowledge and experience were the basis for new learning. The real life story taps into their curiosity and provides the  context for thinking about science in a way that is engaging, relevant and significant.


1. Students review the pathways to scientific discovery flow chart on page 12  of the IB Chemistry syllabus (first exams 2016)

2. They then watched the TED talk by Cheryl Hayashi on the magnificence of spider silk and identify an aspect from the flowchart (below) that struck them as being significant.

How do the ideas and information presented by Cheryl Hayashi connect to a specific aspect of the pathways to scientific discovery?

[ted id=1296]

3. Students then reflected on the following question.

How has your thinking been extended, broadened in some way, taken in a further or deeper direction?

4. Next, they thought about aspects of the nature of scientific research that seemed particularly challenging for scientists like Cheryl Hayashi. These might be questions or issues that emerge.

What challenges might a scientist face?



What were the students thinking?

Aspects of the nature of science revealed:

Exploration and discovery:

  • making observations, asking questions, exploring the literature, sharing data and ideas, serendipity, personal motivation, practical problems, surprising observations

Testing ideas:

  • making a hypothesis, expected observations / actual observations, sharing data and ideas, revising hypothesis, interpreting surprising data, revised assumptions

Benefits and outcomes:

  • satisfy curiosity, develop technology, building knowledge, address societal issues

Analysis and feedback:

  • coming up with new questions / ideas, theory building, discussion with colleagues

How was the students thinking extended? What were they thinking.

The pathway to scientific discovery is a lot more circular than I thought. Motivation, goals, inspiration can come from anywhere (David)

Personal motivations and intense dedication is needed (Heidi)

Scientific discovery may create a need. This could become and issue for our every evolving materialistic society (Heidi)

The spider silk research takes in perspectives from many studies and fields like Geography, Biology, Chemistry, Physics  (Nick)

Often new discoveries are not found out of necessity but out of interest (Laurie)

Scientists need to be prepared to challenge their assumptions. The spider with the strongest dragline silk does not even spin a web. (Aditi)

Passion is a huge determinant in scientific discovery (Vrishti)

Sometimes new discoveries involve stepping back and looking at things we already have instead of needing to create something new.

What challenges do scientists face? Some ideas students raised were

Funding the research / finding financial sponsors

Commercialising the findings

Lack of technology to transform and apply the findings

Implications of making mistakes during the testing of ideas

Facing public criticism

Hitting a dead end in research

Tools for analysing all the data collected

Group 4 Aims
Prior knowledge Condensation polymerization reactions, in particular how protein polymers are made.
Chemistry syllabus & cross curricular links (first exam in 2016) 10.2, A.9, B.2
Learner Profile thinkers, knowledgeable, reflective
IB Approaches to Teaching inquiry based, contextualized
IB Approaches to Learning thinking skills
Nature of Science (NOS) How science works. Pathways to scientific discovery
Assessment Formative
TOK Science Knowledge framework
International mindedness Global context
Links to other IB Subjects Biology


Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison. (2011). Making Thinking Visible. San Francisco: Josseyboss.

International Baccalaureate Organization (2013) Diploma Programme Theory of Knowledge Guide (first exams 2015). Cardiff. International Baccalaureate Organization (UK) Ltd.

International Baccalaureate Organization (2013) Diploma Programme Chemistry Guide (first exams 2016). Cardiff. International Baccalaureate Organization (UK) Ltd.

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