“The stories of STEM can seem hidden
Under layers of vocab; forbidden.
Brave the terms and march on
Through the daunting jargon
To your narratives now to be written.”
I will post my discussion of the 28 April 2019 limerick a bit early, before I backtrack to the 25 April 2019 poem and complete this project over the next few weeks. This poem was written for Graduation Day 2019, and, were this a regular spring semester, Graduation Day 2020 would be soon underway. This is, of course, not a regular spring semester, and so this essay is a good chance to commemorate this year’s class as well. (Given that I’m focusing on two years, I’ll give myself twice my normal word limit!)
“The stories of STEM can seem hidden/
Under layers of vocab; forbidden…”
I encounter most of my students in General Chemistry coursework, which are the largest lecture sections I teach. General Chemistry (and indeed, any introductory course) can be difficult, as students simultaneously learn and apply a challenging disciplinary vocabulary. I often regret that I cannot spend more time on what I was fascinated by as a student myself: the stories underlying science. However, these courses must cover a wide range of concepts and calculations, allowing students to demonstrate the efficient mastery of challenging technical material. These first two lines attempt to balance that tension: the stories are not a focus of introductory courses, but they are there.
“Brave the terms and march on/
Through the daunting jargon/
To your narratives now to be written.”
I am reminded again of the difference between state and path functions. A state function is one that we can fully analyze by knowing the initial and final states of a system: what were the conditions at the start, and what are the conditions at the end? A path function is one for which we must know more about the intervening steps, to complete our analysis.
“Imagine a mountain climber,” I’ve told countless students. “They’re starting at the base of the mountain and climbing to the top. Altitude is the state function: you can easily determine the height to which they’ve climbed and thus find the altitude. Distance is the path function: they could climb directly up the mountain; they could take a winding route. Until you know more about their path, you can’t report the distance they traveled.”
After teaching students in their first-year General Chemistry courses, I rarely see most of them again before their senior-year events and commencement ceremonies. These initially seem like chances to celebrate “state functions,” in many senses of that phrase! We contrast the end of a campus journey with the beginning; we discuss the end of one chapter and the start of another. The pomp and circumstance of graduation are themselves associated with occasions (functions, if you will…) of state.
The last three lines of this poem, though, commemorate the path. Over their four undergraduate years, students “brave the terms” of their disciplinary vocabularies to proceed to their own independent research and creative work. The combined potential of the new stories that lie ahead, “the narratives now to be written,” is phenomenal: graduation ceremonies are dramatic to witness, but their substance and meaning are no less moving to consider this spring. I shift in those lines to speaking directly to my former students, and I’ll close this essay the same way.
“Look at where you are; look at where you started.” These lines are from the musical Hamilton, and they always remind me of the concept of… a state function! This is certainly a day to remember your initial few moments on campus, and to celebrate your status now as graduates. But I would add one more exhortation in 2020, on this unusual graduation day. Please take some time to look back at these last seven weeks and to appreciate the significance of your accomplishment: the steepness of the slope you just scaled; your historic, remarkable path.