Guest Post: The Periodic Table of T-Shirts.

Guest post by Dr Simon Norris a Chemistry teacher at a school in the UK. As his alter ego The Cycling Scientist he has visited primary schools with his science road show. His current interests are using IT to enhance teaching and learning and using social media to create personal CPD for teaching colleagues.

It’s a simple idea. Have 100 plus T-shirts printed in various colours, each with one of the chemical elements on the front. Distribute them to chemists around the world, who get a photo of themselves wearing it, send it to me and I compile the Periodic Table of T Shirts. Advertise the project via Twitter, have the chemists of the world tweet and retweet about it, and the orders would flood in. Another great idea of mine which I would mull over for a few days, perhaps tell a few friends about, do nothing and the opportunity is lost. Except this time, I actually gave it a go and it‘s been a really enlightening experience. Here’s how it happened.

I happen to have three students in my house whose names are also the symbols of chemical elements. I thought it would be fun to get one of them a T-shirt with his name on in the style of a periodic table entry as he had been particularly helpful to others in the house. My students are quite used to my chemistry geekiness so they would not have found this particularly odd. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anywhere that sold them, despite enquiring to the #RealTimeChem community on Twitter. How difficult would it be to design a T shirt and get it printed by one of the many online printers? Far too easy! How difficult would it be to organise T shirts for the rest of the chemistry geeks out there and arrange them into a periodic table of chemistry geeks wearing T-shirts of their favourite element? As it turns out, not too difficult either!

It was going to be straightforward to publicise the project via Twitter with hopefully a few favourable retweets from the likes of @realtimechem, but I was still missing a repository for the ordering information and a space to keep track of who had claimed which element. I needed a website and a blog. How hard could that be? You’ve guessed it- not very difficult at all. I was ready with the website within 24 hours of conception of the original idea. All I needed now was Photoshop and I would be in business. With Photoshop installed on my PC in minutes, courtesy of our fantastic IT department, I set about designing the logos for the shirts. Not so easy! I had never used Photoshop before and hadn’t realised what a huge array of options there would be. However, the great thing about the web is that you are never more than a couple of clicks away from a helpful website and an instructional video. Working with layers: easy! My first logo was ready within a couple of hours and my first batch of T-shirts to test out the idea was ordered a short while later.

The difficulty came with the colour scheme. As a teacher, I know that synthesis is at the apex of the pyramid in Bloom’s taxonomy. All I was doing was creating a few T shirts in different colours to make a periodic table. Mendeleev and others did the hard bit surely? I learned more about the periodic table that day than I had learnt in a long time as a chemistry student and teacher (Steve Wheeler’s post on Learning by Making also exemplifies the same idea ). Should I make the logos different colours for solids, liquids and gases? No, that would be testing my resolve too far if orders did start flooding in. However, choosing the colours for the different groups couldn’t be too tricky surely. Transition metals were going to be emerald green, but what about Zinc, Cadmium and Mercury? The other metals would be dark green, but where should I draw the line and should I have a different colour for the metalloids? I had an order for a Carbon shirt from @stuartcantrill who had seen one of the early retweets from @realtimechem. He suggested an earthy shade and I looked at the palette on the supplier website. Paprika looked like terracotta on the website, but three days later when my Silicon shirt arrived, paprika looked more like salmon pink (sorry Stuart and anyone else that orders one of the non-metals). I’m still not sure whether Lanthanum and Actinium should be the same colour as the transition metals or the lanthanides and actinides respectively but as this is a collaborative project I’m sure someone will advise me!  In the end the completed project will look like the table below, assuming everyone follows the instructions and orders the right colour.

There is a huge amount of interest at my school, but part of me wants these shirts to go to real chemists. Surely there should be someone currently working with each of the elements or an affection for one from some past association. Of course, I chose mine because it’s a shortened form of my name and it’s my project and my rules! My student is also very happy with his shirt and that is great because that’s where the idea started. But I’ve certainly learned a huge amount already, and I hope that by the time the periodic table is complete with chemistry folk sporting shirts of their favourite element, I might have learnt even more.

If you want to appear in the Periodic Table of T Shirts, choose one of the elements for yourself, contact me via Twitter (@cyclinscience) or via my blog and then order it online following the instructions provided. Don’t be put off by Mark Lorch’s suggestion that we can then each contribute to a montage of the Lehrer Periodic Table song. Now that really would be a displacement activity too far for me. Over to you Mark, I’ve got lessons to plan!


  1. The Periodic Table of T Shirts seems interesting. Innovative idea to organize T-shirts in a periodic table. I am little bit confuse to understand it but it’s quite interesting.

  2. Angelina Marth says:

    The idea shared by you really very innovative. Perfect idea for T shirts you shared. I really liked it. But taking little bit time in understanding periodic table.

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