STEM Education Poetry

Changing Focus

Consider the habit creative:
An int’resting step meditative.
STEM tales anecdotal
Can change the length focal 
And show picture more illustrative.  

I occasionally teach a general education seminar on creativity in science.  In preparation, it’s been interesting to read more widely about some of the processes and techniques that inform discovery and innovation across disciplines.  I recently read a classic in the field, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, for the first time.  This poem reflects on Tharp’s presentation of “focal length” as a creative concept, connecting it to some ideas about STEM education.    

Consider the habit creative: /
An int’resting step meditative.
Long before I read The Creative Habit, I had seen it cited many places.  It’s immensely inspiring and insightful: discussing Tharp’s own practice as a choreographer; bringing in stories from other visual and performing artists.  In reading, I noticed echoes from other discussions of creativity that I’ve encountered: the importance of a routine; the usefulness of metaphors; the role of so-called “luck.”  (With respect to the last, Tharp writes, “You don’t get lucky without preparation,” a similarly succinct version of Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind.”) 

One idea I hadn’t encountered before Tharp’s book was the concept of focal length in an artistic context.  She writes, “I often think in terms of focal length, like that of a camera lens.  All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length, or in close-up.  We don’t consciously make that choice.”  She describes Ansel Adams’s panoramic photography, Jerome Robbins’s observer-centered choreography, and Raymond Chandler’s detailed character profiles as examples, respectively, of each.  She points out that it’s rare for artists to move between different focal lengths: “[W]e focus best at some specific spot along the spectrum.”    

STEM tales anecdotal /
Can change the length focal / 
And show picture more illustrative.  
This “focal length” concept is an immensely useful mental model that could likely transfer across all disciplines; as it pertains to STEM, I found the discussion fascinating in multiple ways.  

First, the three focal lengths interestingly parallel the three perspectives of Johnstone’s Triangle in chemistry education.  To my view, Tharp’s “great distance” and Johnstone’s macroscopic perspective easily align, with their focus on the big picture: for a chemist, what could we see in the lab, regarding a sample’s behavior?  So too do Tharp’s “close-up” and Johnstone’s particulate-level perspective: zooming in to see the behavior of specific atoms and molecules in a sample.  The third is a less obvious comparison, but I consider Tharp’s “arm’s length” view alongside Johnstone’s symbolic perspective; chemical notation often provides a mechanism via which a scientist can more objectively consider and communicate their findings. (An interesting tension comes up with the observational scale: the big-picture view of a lab sample, to a chemist, is different from the bird’s-eye view of natural phenomena presented in Adams’s work.  However, the sense of “looking at something three potential ways,” as well as the acknowledgement that we are generally more comfortable with one of the ways than the others, would likely resonate for students; both points certainly ring true for me.)  

The second takeaway connects more directly to Tharp’s actual meaning, considering how different types of writing about science align with these different focal lengths.  For instance, even while I expect that most textbook authors see their primary goal as communication, rather than artistry, we can still see Tharp’s focal lengths at work in such writing.  Many textbooks’ chapters begin with sweeping discussions of chemical principles in nature (e.g., discussing the environmental and meteorological chemistry of the atmosphere as an introduction to gas chemistry), before moving to the technical discussion of the atomic and molecular behaviors under consideration and the symbolic conventions used to communicate those behaviors.   

I note Tharp’s point that artists, including writers, tend to excel more at one of the focal lengths than the others. When it comes to communicating science via a written form, we scientists are generally most adept at and comfortable with the “arm’s length” vocabulary that we’ve spent years learning.  (I’d be interested to analyze my written lecture-note handouts versus my spoken in-class explanations, for instance; I’m confident the former resources are far more technical/detached than the latter.)  This aligns with the Hope Jahren interview that I referenced a few posts ago: it’s “breaking the rules” to talk about science without the layer of technical terminology, and the most precise vocabularies we can use are our equations and jargon… which are generally the most off-putting to any non-specialist, a classification that includes new students.

For my own part, it’s been challenging but most worthwhile to try out other focal lengths through these poems and essays over the past few years; I have learned a great deal about the big-picture stories in my own discipline, and I often find that students respond to those additional contexts. It is always striking, though, how much more effort it takes to explain a concept well in words than to write the corresponding equation. The focal-length concept is an interesting rationale to consider there: I’ve trained for many, many years with one; it makes sense that I need to work harder at the others.

Finally, the third connection aligns best with the verse’s rhyme.  I think of studying for exams and considering complex subject matter; it’s striking how moving to a longer focal length often helps contextualize the shorter-focal-length tasks.  Practicing piano scales makes more sense when we see how these manifest themselves in musical pieces; learning the nuances of skeletal drawings becomes more purposeful when we understand their efficiency in communicating complex organic chemistry knowledge.  Remembering the contributions of multiple scientists to their disciplines is simpler when we can consider the story of a theory’s development over time: “STEM tales anecdotal / Can change the length focal.”  Concept maps and other metacognitive techniques put these principles into practice directly (often resulting in an actual “picture more illustrative”!), and focal length is an efficient metaphor that I will remember, as well.  


And with that– speaking of a change in focus– I’ve really enjoyed working on these longer pieces for a few weeks, but I’ll now take a few weeks away from posting here, to prepare for the start of classes more deliberately. When the fall term begins, I’ll aim to post at least once a week, translating some of last year’s Twitter poems. It’s a bit daunting to consider a return to routines, after the challenges of the past two academic years, and it will be fun to include some informal writing in the autumn semester.