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STEM Education Poetry

Name That Tune

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle,
Little Star” share a melody single.  
The tunes are the same,
But when just naming names,
Common content can be tough to signal!    

This non-Twitter poem highlights an interesting challenge of communicating in scientific disciplines; this challenge certainly extends to introductory science courses.  

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, /
Little Star” share a melody single.  
Several childhood songs, including the alphabet song (a.k.a. “now I know my ABCs”), “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and others, have the same melody. However, that often is not obvious until one hums each tune to oneself. These initial two lines are rhythmically awkward, but they succinctly introduce a point that can resonate in a more complex context: during a STEM student’s undergraduate path, they often encounter common concepts in multiple courses.  

The tunes are the same, /
But when just naming names, /
Common content can be tough to signal!   
I remember one hallway conversation with a colleague teaching in a different STEM discipline; we were discussing the fact that thermodynamics had recently come up in both of our courses, but it was difficult for students taking both to transfer concepts and calculations between the two disciplinary presentations.  It didn’t take much time to identify the reason why. 

If we think about the process of heating a sample of water through all three of its phases, from solid ice to liquid water to gaseous steam, that process involves two “phase changes,” one from solid to liquid and one from liquid to gas.  At each of these, some heat energy is necessary to cause the phase change itself.  For instance, depending on sample size, it takes a certain amount of heat energy transferred at constant pressure to cause ice to melt to water: this was a concept that had recently come up in both my and my colleague’s courses. However, we soon realized that while I was discussing it in class as the enthalpy of that melting step, my colleague referred to it as the latent heat.  We each had learned the other term at some point, but it still took us a few seconds to recalibrate our discussion; we realized that students were likely hearing each unusual term as its own unusual concept, even with such an everyday process as the melting of ice.  

To directly link this anecdote to the limerick: the “melody” here is the familiar idea that melting ice to form water requires an input of heat energy at constant pressure.  However, that’s not immediately evident when “naming names” and learning the disciplinary vocabulary: the “common content” is challenging to realize. 

Different scientific disciplines require their own complicated disciplinary jargons for efficient communication among their specialists.  This can create quite a hurdle for novice learners, who often must take more than one introductory STEM course at once.  As with so many of these essays, my hope is that being aware of that obstacle might provide an important step towards navigating it.   

I will end here with a wonderful quotation from renowned organic chemist Percy Julian, whose words bring the essay to a close with a focus on another childhood rhyme.   

“I don’t want to frighten those of you who are not familiar with organic chemistry. I should have said in the beginning that one hardly expects an organic chemist to be able to speak without his gobbledygook in his language. As a matter of fact, one hardly expects a scientist to speak without that, and therefore scientists are usually and traditionally poor speakers, I warn you… The late Sir J. B. S. Haldane, the great biologist, put it rather aptly when he said that our language doesn’t lend itself to poetry. ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’ becomes impossible when you must call the ladybird Coccinella bipunctata.”

Dr. Percy Julian, quoted in “Forgotten Genius,” NOVA