STEM Education Poetry

Starting Lines

“Fall 2020’s path,
General Chemistry,
Now underway.
Socially distancing;
Patience and fortitude 
Carry the day.”

This is the shortest delay between Twitter posting and explanatory essay that I’ll likely ever have on this website; given this poem’s specific, stated relevance to Fall 2020, I will discuss it here in Week 1 of the new semester.    

“Fall 2020’s path, /
Synchronological: /
General Chemistry, /
Now underway.”
Synchronous” and “asynchronous” were not definitions I knew prior to March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, but I now use these words often, as they pertain to online education and course design.  Synchronous sessions are those that meet at a specified time, while asynchronous courses are those for which materials are posted and accessible any time.  My particular autumn semester has aspects of both, but my General Chemistry classes are synchronous, meeting in the early mornings.  In this poem’s near-double-dactylic form, the most fitting adjective became “synchronological.” As of Monday, the courses are underway.     

“Socially distancing;

Some Autumn 2020 courses will involve in-person, socially distanced discussions; others will involve online lectures; others will involve some combination of the two and/or many additional possibilities.  All options have involved a significant amount of faculty preparation and flexibility over the summer months.  

“Patience and fortitude /
Carry the day.”
I’ve discussed in this space previously the concept of the zeroth law of thermodynamics: the necessity of the statement via which thermodynamic temperature is formally defined, before temperature can be used as a concept in subsequent scientific discussions.  Likewise, whatever this fall semester will bring, it is likely that its own “zeroth” requirements– the properties that must be established before any progress can be made– will reveal themselves as fortitude and patience.  Keeping these in mind, faculty, students, and staff will work together to navigate this challenging term and “carry the day”: to find success, even in these unusual circumstances.        

Science Poetry

D.C. al fine

“Lunar photography’s 
Silvery filigree 
Celebrates odyssey set in the skies.
Elegant element’s
Silver’s reduction enables moon’s rise.

Moments of alacrity,
Sagacity, tenacity—
STEM, sports, music, history—
Enveloped in philately.”  

This week’s entry expands on two Twitter poems that I wrote about my July 2019 trip to Washington, D.C., discussing two museums that I was fortunate to visit.  I’ll write both explanations in a single entry– discussing the trip from the beginning to the end, as it exists in this virtual space– so that I am justified in using “D.C. al fine” as the title.  

Lunar photography’s /
Silvery filigree /
Celebrates odyssey set in the skies.
The National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibit on lunar photography entitled “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Many of the images were from black-and-white photography, a technique which relies on a chemical reaction involving a silver halide (AgCl, AgBr, or AgI).  “Silvery filigree” is thus a poetic way of describing such images, celebrating the sky-set “odyssey” from Earth to the moon.  

Elegant element’s /
Photodevelopment: /
Silver’s reduction enables moon’s rise.”
The latter lines of this poem directly discuss the chemistry involved with black-and-white photography.  Silver is the “elegant element” involved in the process; in the specific reaction of interest, a light-sensitive precipitate containing a positively charged silver ion is coated onto a surface.  When the surface is exposed to light, the silver ion in the precipitate is reduced to elemental silver.  

The last line celebrates the interesting contrast of mental images present in the chemical process and its artistic result.  The reduction of silver from a cation to a neutral atom is what allows the emergence of the image: here, the “moon’s rise.”      


Moments of alacrity, /
Sagacity, tenacity— /
STEM, sports, music, history— /
Enveloped in philately.”  
I was fortunate to live near Washington, D.C. during my postdoctoral work, and I traveled often into the city.  The National Postal Museum became one of my favorite places to visit: rarely crowded and always interesting.  It was fun to return during my 2019 vacation. 

This brief verse highlights the wide range of images on postal stamps: moments of celebration, contemplation, and dedication, across a wide range of fields.  The poem itself is quite simple: several variations on the central rhyme of “philately” (and an allusion to envelopes, for good measure).   

STEM Education Poetry

Retro Styles

Normal homework routine: questions answered.
A reframing can reset these standards,
If technique supplementary
We borrow from Jeopardy! 
Make progress by first thinking backward.  

This week’s limerick builds on the ideas noted in last week’s STEM education poem, which examined transparency in assignments, to look at the broader concept of backwards design, another long-established approach in educational practice. In particular, this poem attempts to highlight that an awareness of such pedagogical strategies could provide a possible metacognitive approach (a “technique supplementary”) for chemistry students.   

Normal homework routine: questions answered. /
A reframing can reset these standards…
The first two lines here emphasize the poem’s attempt to reconsider curricula in STEM classes, where homework often tends towards the algorithmic; this limerick will attempt to “reframe” this standard view.  

If technique supplementary /
We borrow from Jeopardy! /
Make progress by first thinking backward.  
Last week’s STEM-education-themed poem addressed transparency in learning and teaching (TILT) as a technique that instructors use to clarify the purposes of their assignments.  This week’s poem examines the related, encompassing idea of “backwards design,” where educators begin with the key learning outcomes that they want students to achieve in a course, then think backwards to intentionally design assignments and curricula that will help students reach those outcomes.  

Lines three and four aim for a familiar allusion with a rather imperfect rhyme, stating that this “supplementary” approach will echo the aims of the game show Jeopardy!  In Jeopardy!, clues are presented as “answers,” and contestants must respond in the form of questions, reversing the typical pattern stated in the poem’s first line, to progress successfully.  The concepts of TILT generally align with those of backwards design; as with Jeopardy! contestants, instructors using these approaches are thinking backward: here, to develop intentional assignments for their courses.      

While themes in both TILT and backwards design emphasize how assignments can be planned, they also present ways for students to consider their own coursework.  Can it ever be useful, in looking at a confusing assignment, to think deliberately backwards, considering what a teacher might have intended to be the process, task, and criteria? Experts in TILT have provided resources that emphasize this very approach!  Such exercises can help a student both to better understand assignments and to clarify conversations with their teachers.

This reversed thinking bears intriguing parallels to retrosynthesis, a technique from organic chemistry.  In retrosynthesis, a chemist considers the possible paths to a target molecule, thinking all the way backwards to the “starting material.”  This is often a challenging technique for students to learn in organic chemistry, and it would be similarly challenging to deconstruct a given assignment back to its goals and outcomes.  However, just as retrosynthesis is a powerful tool for chemists, the educational analog may be a useful model for students to keep in mind, in approaching a difficult course or assignment.   

Science Poetry

Case Studies

“To calculate rate arithmetic
Of reaction, cite info kinetic.  
(Common error displayed: 
Writing capital K.
For rate constant, use lower-case metric!)” 

The 24 July 2019 limerick examined a particular piece of symbolic notation that often sees some misapplication in General Chemistry.   

To calculate rate arithmetic / 
Of reaction, cite info kinetic.”  
Questions of whether a chemical reaction will occur or not involve “spontaneity,” a term with a specific meaning in chemistry.  A reaction that is spontaneous is one that occurs naturally; “spontaneous,” as a descriptor in a chemical context, is unrelated to a reaction’s speed.  (This is a case of unhelpfully mismatched chemical and everyday definitions.) 

To communicate information about the rate of the reaction, we instead use kinetic data.  The rate constant, or rate coefficient, is one piece of this data.  It is represented by a lower-case k.  The rate law of a given reaction indicates how the reaction rate depends on the rate constant and on the concentrations of species involved in the reaction.   Determining a rate law from kinetic data is a common experimental goal.     

(Common error displayed: / 
Writing capital K. /
For rate constant, use lower-case metric!)” 
In chemistry, similar or identical symbols can be used in multiple settings with multiple meanings, a phenomenon that can be confusing.  (For instance, the capital letter H, in chemistry, can represent hydrogen, or enthalpy, or the Hamiltonian operator: each with a distinct conceptual meaning.) As learners progress from novices to experts, they become adept at reading the context clues. 

In General Chemistry coursework, students are typically introduced within the span of only a few weeks to two major topics: kinetics and equilibrium.  In the former, the lower-case k represents a rate coefficient.  In the latter, a capital K represents an equilibrium constant, a different quantity.   While the two types of constants are related to one another, it is common to see them simply used interchangeably in introductory assignments: this is an error displayed.”

STEM Education Poetry

Clarifying Language

STEM assignments can tend towards asperity;
Links twixt aims and the grades can lack clarity.
Homework’s goals will be bolstered
With structures “upholstered”:
Clarify learning goals through transparency!  

This STEM-education-themed poem describes the principles behind “transparent assignment design,” which I personally first encountered in a 2019 teaching workshop (although the principles involved have certainly been established in educational practice for many years previous!). I’ve been thinking over the past few days about the challenges posed by the hidden curriculum in my own courses and how those arise particularly easily when assignment designs are “opaque.”    

STEM assignments can tend towards asperity;/
Links twixt aims and the grades can lack clarity. 
In the chemistry courses I teach, assignments like exams, homework, and lab reports are intended to highlight my visible-curriculum learning goals: conceptual understanding; problem-solving; data analysis; scientific communication.  However, within assignments, individual questions and problems can be highly algorithmic, often assessed primarily on whether a “right answer” was obtained.  Such dissonance between learning goals and graded work seems harsh and can deter a student’s learning, as I described in a previous entry.    

Homework’s goals will be bolstered /
With structures “upholstered”: /
Clarify learning goals through transparency!  
In thinking about this challenge more deliberately, I remembered an excellent presentation I heard in Spring 2019 from Suzanne Tapp, an expert on the use of “transparent design” in higher education.  She discussed how student learning from an assignment can be greatly enhanced when an instructor takes time to thoughtfully outline a given assignment, focusing on the purpose, the task, and the criteria.  (This point facilitated the rhyme of “bolstered” and “upholstered” in the third and fourth lines in the limerick: examining how embellishment of an assignment’s structure can strengthen it.)     

For instance, rather than simply tell my students “take an IR spectrum of this sample and write a lab report about your experiment,” I could outline the report’s purpose (to gain conceptual knowledge about vibrational spectroscopy; to develop skills in communicating scientific results to other scientists); the task (scaffolded instructions for each different section of the lab report); and the grading criteria (including a rubric or a sample response, to be as clear to students as possible).  This would become the substance of the assignment handout that I provided to my students.  Experts with “transparency in learning and teaching (TILT)” have highlighted how this practice can optimize learning for the entire classroom and lead to greater equity in STEM classrooms

As with many teaching workshops, the material was fascinating, and yet it’s taken me longer than I’d like to put the lessons learned into action.  I deliberately moved towards more spoken, in-class explanations about the “why” and “how” behind assignments in my classrooms in 2019-2020, but I didn’t create the text-based documents to support those questions.  Such an action is another concrete step I can take towards a more supportive classroom, as I prepare for the fall semester.  I plan to continue this discussion in next week’s post.    

Science Poetry

Trend Analysis

“Celebrate, elevate
Chart periodic, the chemist’s best friend.  
Innovate, explicate
Lessons perennial,
Elements ordered in table-set trends.”  

The  23 July 2019 Twitter poem was another entry for C&E News’s “Periodic Poetry” contest, highlighting the periodic table and that table’s central role for chemists.  As with the 8 July 2019 poem, this verse doesn’t fully meet the stringent standards of the double dactyl form (a.k.a. the “higgledy piggledy”), but it comes close.  

“Celebrate, elevate / 
Sesquicentennial /
Chart periodic, the chemist’s best friend.” 
The first three lines highlight the celebratory nature of the International Year of the Periodic Table, the 150th (sesquicentennial) anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1869 initial publication.  The periodic table is an indispensable tool for chemists, presenting a wealth of important data in an organized way.  (As a sidenote, “sesquicentennial” is one of a set of terms uniquely suited for the higgledy-piggledy form, given that it is a double-dactylic word; seeing it in a list of such words provided this poem’s inspiration.)    

“Innovate, explicate / 
Lessons perennial, /
Elements ordered in table-set trends.” 
Each fall, when teaching the history and use of the periodic table, I review my lecture notes, add in new details and examples, and generally attempt to “innovate, explicate [my] lessons perennial.” 

Mendeleev ordered the elements according to their chemical and physical properties, resulting in a chart that can predict relative information about a wide number of behaviors.  For instance, sodium (Na) and potassium (K) are in the same column, or family, in the periodic table.  Because potassium is underneath sodium in their column, a chemist thus can quickly make predictions about their relative atomic size (more precisely called atomic radius); the relative energy required to remove an electron from either atom (called the first ionization energy), and many other properties.  Periodic trends are “table-set”: in many cases, a chemist can use the periodic table to predict the relative magnitudes of elements’ physical and chemical properties.  

It is intriguing to contrast another common meaning of “higgledy-piggledy”– chaotic and disordered— with both the strict rules for this poetic form and the highly organized chemical chart which this poem celebrates!           

STEM Education Poetry

Active Learning

The textbook, they say, isn’t gripping. 
For the lectures, it fails at equipping
The students with motive: 
It’s far too denotive.  
So faculty, now, should be flipping.  

This is one of my favorite academic limericks that I’ve written, as it approaches the humorous, lighthearted nature inherent in that form, rather than simply borrowing the structure.  That said, I’ve never posted it on Twitter because, separate from any supporting explanations, it has always seemed more flippant than I’d like (perhaps a particularly suitable descriptor, given the subject matter!).  Given its pertinence to educational approaches and terminology, it seems a useful verse to revisit in this space, with some additional context.  

The textbook, they say, isn’t gripping. 
Academic texts– especially scientific textbooks— are tough reads, given the amount of information they cover.  They are densely written in terms of actual prose; they often present data via several media (figures, tables, graphs); they introduce numerous new vocabulary words that are immediately applied (hearkening back to Bent’s categorization of “strange terms for strange things”).  

For the lectures, it fails at equipping /
The students with motive: /
It’s far too denotive.  
The next three lines of the poem highlight the challenges of textbooks for chemistry students in particular.  Chemistry textbooks are highlydenotive,” using a variety of symbolic notations with precise meanings that must be understood by the reader before disciplinary concepts can be effectively communicated.  Generally, these books themselves do not spend time on the language-learning side of the discipline (although exceptions certainly exist!), instead moving directly into the concepts described by the “strange terms.”  This writing style can be disheartening to novice learners, “fail[ing] at equipping the students with motive” to read before a class session.  

So faculty, now, should be flipping.  
One response to this challenge is “flipping the classroom,” a pedagogical approach which has gained significant momentum in recent years.  Faculty create resources (videos and lecture slides) to post online, in which they present their standard lecture material, distilling key points from the course textbook.  Students examine these resources in tandem with the book when their schedule allows.  In-class time is then fully devoted to active learning experiences such as discussions, practice problems, and case studies.  Research has shown that such efforts can lead to improved learning outcomes for STEM students, as well as more equitable classrooms

Science Poetry

Rotational Profiles

“Gauche interactions are 
Torsional infractions;
Likewise, groups eclipsing, so see option third…
Butane in profile
Rotates from erstwhile 
Higher-strain conformers: anti’s preferred.”

The 22 July 2019 Twitter poem examines a concept from organic chemistry, the energetic costs and benefits available to a molecule as it rotates through its conformations: specifically, the poem discusses the ways that the molecule butane can arrange itself in three-dimensional space.  This is a highly visual topic, so I’m intrigued to see what I can communicate in the 280 words below (with many links!).    

Gauche interactions are /
Torsional infractions; /
Likewise, groups eclipsing, so see option third…
The molecule butane (C4H10) consists of four carbon atoms in a line, covalently bonded.  Carbon atoms form four bonds, so butane’s terminal carbon atoms (first and last in line) each form three additional bonds to hydrogen atoms, while the middle two carbon atoms each form two additional bonds to hydrogen atoms.    

Rotation around butane’s central carbon-carbon bond leads to a variety of conformers.  Different conformers’ atoms interact with one another differently (their electron clouds repel, incurring energetic costs) through three-dimensional space.  Chemists have vocabulary to describe these torsional interactions: so named since interactions arise from the molecule’s torsion (twisting).    

The most intuitively named is the eclipsed conformer; if the methyl groups (the terminal carbon atoms, bonded to three hydrogen atoms apiece) are eclipsing, these groups line up with one another like the hands of a clock at noon. This is most easily seen through a chemistry model called a Newman projection.  Eclipsing incurs the highest possible energetic cost, or “torsional infraction,” in this molecule.  

Other energetic penalties arise in the gauche conformer, where the methyl groups are in something akin to a “2 p.m.” orientation. 

Butane in profile /
Rotates from erstwhile / 
Higher-strain conformers: anti’s preferred.
As portrayed in a rotational profile of butane, the anti conformer (an approximation of a clock’s “6 p.m.” orientation) keeps the methyl groups as far away from one another as possible and is the most energetically beneficial (“preferred”) conformation.  The anti conformer avoids torsional strain, although butane can still rotate into other conformations (“erstwhile higher-strain conformers”) as well.   

STEM Education Poetry

Hidden Curriculum

Note: a pothole in travel vehicular,
Dodged more eas’ly when on route familiar.  
When at wheel for time first–
When with content unversed–
Keep eyes open for hidden curricula!  

This non-Twitter limerick highlights the idea of the “hidden curriculum” in chemistry and other fields: comparing it to an unexpected road hazard and highlighting the idea that one’s perspective on such an obstacle shifts, given time as a driver.  The hidden curriculum is acknowledged in pedagogical research but rarely deliberately addressed in a STEM classroom, where the content-heavy “visible” curriculum takes center stage.     

Note: a pothole in travel vehicular, /
Dodged more eas’ly when on route familiar.  
This poem aligns with some of this site’s previous discussion on expert practitioners and novice learners.  It places the discussion first in a more universal setting: driving a car.  The first two lines are from the perspective of an expert navigator/driver, “travel[ing] vehicular[ly]” through a familiar routine.  Once someone has been driving on a road for a long time, it can become second-nature to dodge potholes, anticipate sudden dips, etc.  Similarly, a professor can sometimes move quickly through nuanced presentations that are tough for students to immediately understand.  

When at wheel for time first– /
When with content unversed– /
Keep eyes open for hidden curricula!  
Learning to drive (“at wheel for time first”), by contrast, requires a heightened awareness of the obstacles on the road, since the obstacles are all brand-new.  Likewise, an undergraduate STEM student is new to their disciplinary route, “with content unversed.” It can thus be a useful metacognitive step to “keep eyes open for hidden curricula,” which could otherwise constitute a sharp curve or unexpected intersection along the way, in learning content in introductory courses.   

Driving metaphors aside: what is this “hidden curriculum”?  In his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, history professor Kevin M. Gannon describes it succinctly as “a sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory counternarrative to our formal, explicit curriculum.”  Gannon notes that the way a course is structured can unintentionally say a great deal to a student.  

For example, I would expect that most introductory chemistry courses have some variation on “critical thinking in problem solving” as an intended learning outcome.  But what if the only contributions to a student’s final letter grade are from three multiple-choice exams?  In this case, the hidden curriculum contradicts the formal curriculum by emphasizing that “plug-and-chug” problem-solving– memorizing the steps with which to get the right answer, whether the concepts behind those steps are fully understood or not–  is more important than learning how to critically think through a complex problem, since the former is assessed directly in the grade and the latter is (seemingly) not.  

Discussions of the hidden curriculum are wide-ranging and have complex implications for a variety of fields.  My purpose in this limerick, as in my other STEM education poems, is merely to provide an acknowledgement to students of another underlying, enigmatic phenomenon that can unexpectedly arise in a chemistry course.  I’ve been working this summer on my own syllabi to examine this tension, aiming for greater congruence between my curricula, visible and hidden.

Science Poetry

Mass Spectrometry

“A method from lab, mass spectrometry,
Sends sample on fragmenting odyssey.
From mass-to-charge data,
A user can rate a 
First guess as to compound’s geometry.”   

The 12 July 2019 limerick addresses another common experimental method used to identify chemical compounds: mass spectrometry.  Unlike NMR or IR spectroscopy, mass spectrometry does not examine how a chemical sample interacts with light, but rather how a sample molecule breaks into component pieces.    

“A method from lab, mass spectrometry, / 
Sends sample on fragmenting odyssey.”
One type of mass spectrometry is electron impact ionization mass spectrometry.  In the experimental apparatus, a chemical species is first vaporized: converted to a gas.  Then, as the method’s name suggests, the species is bombarded (impacted) by a high-energy stream of electrons, resulting in the its ionization: the species becomes charged rather than neutral.  (In the common notation of this process, the molecule, represented as M, loses an electron through this process to form a molecular ion, represented as M+.  The molecular ion has a positive charge, because it lost a negatively charged electron.)  

As the molecular ion travels further through the apparatus, it fragments into common component pieces.  Through interaction with a magnet in the spectrometer, these pieces are deflected to various extents before they reach the detector of the instrument and data are collected.      

“From mass-to-charge data, / A user can rate a / 
First guess as to compound’s geometry.”  
The component pieces are also charged and thus also ions.  The mass spectrometer analyzes the mass-to-charge ratios of these smaller ions.  Generally, the ions formed in this type of instrument have a +1 charge, so the mass-to-charge ratios are equal to these ions’ masses. The resulting mass spectrum is a graph: showing the abundance (prevalence) of the component ions as a function of their masses.  

A mass spectrum provides a record of the ions generated by the fragmentation of a molecule. This helps a chemist to rate “a first guess as to [a] compound’s geometry,” providing evidence as to whether a target compound has been synthesized, by the presence or omission of expected fragments of that compound.