Science Poetry


“Schemes mechanistic 
Are useful heuristics 
For learning reactions organic by heart. 
Predicting new pathways, 
Then, novel skills displays: 
Part textbook-learned logic, part chemical art.”

Moving forward, I will plan to alternate my chem-education-focused essays with my Twitter poem translations.  Imprecise as the “pseudo-double-dactyl” form mentioned in the 31 May 2020 post might be, once I had its rhythm in mind, it opened up a range of chemistry words and phrases that fit better there than in the limerick’s anapestic format.  The 9 July 2019 poem highlighted one such “dactylic” topic, examining the concept of organic mechanisms: step-by-step depictions of how a reaction theoretically takes place at the molecular level.  

“Schemes mechanistic/
Are useful heuristics/
For learning reactions organic by heart.” 
“Mechanism” is an intriguingly flexible word that depends greatly on disciplinary context.  An organic chemistry mechanism is one which represents the electron flow that occurs between different reactants to achieve a chemical reaction.  These are sometimes called “electron-pushing mechanisms,” and the electrons in question are represented via the use of curved arrows.  These constitute one of the most common problem-solving types in chemistry: asking students to predict how a given reactant molecule can react to form a target product.  Generally, this is achieved by memorizing how generalized reaction scenarios occur– “learning… by heart”– and applying this knowledge to the specific molecular pathway in question.           

“Predicting new pathways, /
Then, novel skills displays: /  
Part textbook-learned logic, part chemical art.”     
“Synthesis” is another word that varies with context but generally refers to putting pieces together to form a larger whole.  In organic chemistry, it refers to the construction of new, larger molecules from smaller ones.   As an educational objective defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy, it represents a higher level of learning, in which someone uses knowledge creatively to advance a new idea.  The last three lines of this poem acknowledge the higher level of learning present in a synthetic endeavor, something advanced by an expert who has moved beyond memorization of disciplinary concepts to fluency with the use of those concepts.  It has been fascinating in developing courses of my own to learn more about how people learn; this poem attempts to articulate some of the differences in skills and objectives between a novice learner and an expert practitioner.