STEM Education Poetry

Syllabus Statements

In “Science 1,” our textbooks preach set rules
Established: puzzle pieces that will rest
Quite neatly in their promised outlines.  Schools
Rely on goals predictable to test.  
But what of science practiced?  Whence the books?  
We’ll deem that something else: the effort new
That seeks horizons far and challenge brooks.  
(For purpose here, let’s call it “Science 2.”)
I rarely note this conflict as I teach–  
Since content’s great and time allotted, small–   
And hope that one who will, in future, reach 
Beyond this course can knowledge overhaul.
I’ll state here bluntly: both have “Science” name, 
But Versions 1 and 2 are not the same.

I have been reading and listening a great deal in response to the nationwide rallies against racial injustice that have been taking place this summer.  Discussions such as #ShutDownSTEM have highlighted systemic obstacles that Black scholars and students face in academia.   Additionally, research published this summer has emphasized the significant barriers that General Chemistry can create for STEM students, especially Black students and other underrepresented students.  

As a white faculty member, I want to work toward an actively anti-racist learning environment in whatever ways I can.   In resuming my regular posts in this space, in addition to my typical translations of chemistry poetry, I would like to be more deliberate about discussing the challenges of General Chemistry coursework.  Thus, this sonnet is not one I’ve previously posted on Twitter.  Rather than illustrating a specific chemistry concept, it addresses a phrasing that I discovered in the literature early in my teaching career and wished sincerely that I had learned as a student.  I still found it helpful to build my discussion over a poem’s framework.  

In “Science 1,” our textbooks preach set rules /
Established– puzzle pieces that will rest /
Quite neatly in their promised outlines.  Schools /
Rely on goals predictable to test. /
But what of science practiced?  Whence the books? / 
We’ll deem that something else: the effort new /
That seeks horizons far and challenge brooks. / 
(For purpose here, let’s call it “Science 2.”) 
“Science 1” and “Science 2” are defined in an essay entitled “Cubes, Eights, and Dots,” by Robert Kooser and Lance Factor (referenced in an excellent Journal of Chemical Education article that I was fortunate to encounter a few years ago).  The authors blend historical and philosophical perspectives on chemistry “to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is not a cast-iron set of facts, but rather a fluid body of information shaped by the people who use it for specific purposes.”  They describe the development of the octet rule, a guiding principle in drawing Lewis dot structures, which are in turn useful representational tools for chemical compounds.  Notably, their essay tells the story of the rule’s development, rather than its application.  The authors quote physics professor and science historian Gerald Horton, who defines the terms borrowed in today’s poem: 

Science as it appears in textbooks [Science I] and science as it is practiced by researchers into the unknown [Science II] are two different things… Since most of us will never do Science II, we put our energies into learning Science I, but as we have seen, Science II is historically behind and underneath Science I.

Gerald Horton, quoted in “Cubes, Eights, and Dots”

In other words, textbook chemistry (Science 1) and real chemistry (Science 2) are different; this difference goes beyond simple “theory vs. practice” questions into something more fundamental. 

Another quote from the same essay addresses the fact that an awareness of these underlying stories can be challenging to consider; the authors highlight I. Bernard Cohen’s The Structure of Scientific Theories: “We do not dare to tell our students… this would impugn the alleged empirical foundation.”  (Though this is a tangent for another time, I imagine some overlap here with the debate over science “storytelling” that I’ve seen discussed in the literature.) 

What I teach in General Chemistry, with respect to the content covered in “Cubes, Eights, and Dots,” is the use of the octet rule: pure Science 1; application of an established disciplinary concept; simple evaluation via an exam question.  What is the real science– the Science 2– behind the rule?  It is the saga of the stops and starts necessary to devise this useful heuristic for describing chemical compounds: the discussions between Lewis and Langmuir; the refinement of the octet rule and Lewis structures into compelling models for other chemists; science as an investigative, clarifying process.

I rarely note this conflict as I teach– / 
Since content’s great and time allotted, small– /  
And hope that one who will, in future, reach /
Beyond this course can knowledge overhaul.
I have never accentuated this “Science 1 vs. Science 2” tension in teaching General Chemistry, which covers a great deal of disciplinary content in a limited timeframe.  Most Gen Chem students won’t take more than one or two years’ chemistry coursework, so it has seemed like they are better served by a focus on the Science-1-specific objectives that their professional programs (and, more to the point, their largely-multiple-choice qualifying exams) will require.  For chemistry majors, I hope that laboratory work, advanced classes, and independent research will illuminate the differences.  When I talk extensively about the practices and narratives of Science 2, it is either with research advisees, with whom I have far more time, or with general education STEM classes, which do not have stringent content requirements.  

However, I remember my considerable frustration as a student in my own Science-1-centric General Chemistry course, worrying that I was missing some bigger picture, even as I dutifully memorized each chapter’s numerous equations.  I wasn’t able to fully contextualize or articulate that worry at the time.  I am confident that other students, many of whom would not have the support systems that I did, have faced similar frustrations.           

I’ll state here bluntly: both have “Science” name, /
But Versions 1 and 2 are not the same.
Renowned poet and English professor Elizabeth Alexander provides a key to resolving this Science-1/Science-2 conflict, as she writes: “[S]peaking is crucial… you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”  She adds, “[E]ducation is not something you passively consume.”  Read in a chemistry context, her words can inspire the reader to learn the concepts of Science 1 by acknowledging that they, as new learners, are contributing to the narratives of Science 2.    
I’ve written in this space on the challenging balance between learning disciplinary vocabulary and employing that vocabulary in one’s own research and creative work.  I’d like to be more intentional, though, moving forward in my professional work: highlighting in my syllabi the existence of the “two sciences” and explaining the challenges their tension creates; quoting Alexander’s essay and encouraging students to explore Science-2-centered narratives (and to consider their own), even as we learn the Science-1 vocabulary and concepts with which to fully describe and understand these narratives.  Although directly acknowledging this complexity is a small step, it is my hope that it will be an initial, constructive one towards a more equitable classroom.