STEM Education Poetry

Form and Function

“Committee work kicks off this week,
The third of fall semester.
The aim for each: a functional group!
À la the ketone, ester—
Will set structures henceforth guide us,
How in meetings we’ll react?
(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”

This past Twitter poem lines up with the current prose here in an intriguing way, as this is Week 3 of the current semester, Fall 2020.  This verse compares a common organic chemistry definition– “functional group”– to the everyday meaning of such a phrase. 

While this essay doesn’t examine an aspect of chemical education directly, in the same way most of the other STEM education poems have, it centers on an aspect of a faculty member’s schedule that may not be immediately evident to students and that may be thus useful to highlight. In particular, faculty members specifically reserve office hours to ensure that they have time available for student questions outside of class: otherwise, committee meetings and other service work can quickly overwhelm the calendar.

“Committee work kicks off this week, /
The third of fall semester…”
Generally speaking (in Fall 2019, for instance), the first two weeks of a fall semester are relatively slow in terms of service: the necessary committee work with respect to guiding a university’s curriculum and other important topics.  These tasks supplement a faculty member’s teaching and research.  (These lines don’t apply as well in this unusual autumn, when many meetings have been occurring all summer.)   

“The aim for each: a functional group!”
The third line of this poem introduces what will be revealed as a chemistry pun.  Certainly, one central goal for any committee is being a group that functions well.  

“À la the ketone, ester….”
The fourth line highlights the chemistry-specific meaning of “functional group.”  In organic chemistry, a functional group is a characteristic group of atoms that defines the function of a molecule.  For instance, if a molecule contains an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom (this is a pattern abbreviated as “R-OH”), it is said to contain an alcohol functional group, and chemists thus know that this molecule will undergo some established reaction pathways.  Two other common functional groups that fit particularly well in this rhyme scheme are ketones and esters.  

“Will set structures henceforth guide us, /
How in meetings we’ll react?”
Lines five and six make the comparison between the chemistry definition and everyday definition explicit: will the structure of a campus committee inform how it functions?  

“(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”
The closing lines emphasize that the two definitions don’t truly overlap: work accomplished by a committee will always be far less predictable than the reactions available to organic molecules!