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.

STEM Education Poetry

Impostor Syndrome

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster
With material dense, across roster.
Here, a theme that’s implicit,
Rhyme attempts to elicit:
Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.  

This non-Twitter poem describes another phenomenon that I remember encountering in my own chemistry coursework; another one that I could name only years later.  As with other poems I’ve written, my hope is that some deliberate discussion of such topics may be useful to students.

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster /
With material dense, across roster.  
Chemistry courses are particularly demanding because they involve densely complex concepts described by densely complex language; chemistry professor Henry A. Bent has eloquently phrased this overlap as “strange terms for strange things.”  Further, General Chemistry enrolls students from many majors.  Finally, the course moves at a fast pace, to cover all the technical content expected in this widely-used prerequisite.  The combination can be confusing for many students in the course, “across [the] roster.” 

Here, a theme that’s implicit, / Rhyme attempts to elicit
As with my other STEM-education-categorized poems, this limerick emphasizes an underlying theme not officially explored in most chemistry textbooks or curricula.      

Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.
It is common in chemistry coursework to feel the pressure of impostor syndrome: an insidious belief that one has only succeeded thus far due to fraud.  That is, if someone earned high grades in all previous classes and suddenly finds a course unexpectedly difficult, it is a common response for them to believe that this is because they have been able to fool people all the way along until now.  This isn’t true.  College science courses are uniquely challenging and require different study techniques: moreover, these overarching structural obstacles are rarely visible, a compounding factor that persists through academia and the working world.  

When facing a new job or task in my own life, I often think of Bill Watterson’s wonderful comic Calvin and Hobbes: this storyline in particular, in which Calvin navigates his first baseball game without actually having been taught the rules.  At one point, he notices that the batting and fielding teams are changing places but, without an understanding of his responsibilities, he doesn’t move from his own place in the outfield.  A few panels later, he accidentally catches a fly ball from one of the batters on his own team.  Ultimately, facing widespread criticism, he leaves the team, and his terrible coach calls him a quitter.  Calvin’s misguidedly optimistic line from early on– “Well, I’m sure someone would tell me if I was supposed to be doing anything different”– comes to mind often in new situations, where the biggest pictures are often the least acknowledged.

In my own experience, impostor syndrome doesn’t ever go completely away: hence my shift to the first-person voice in the poem’s last line.  However, being able to name it is helpful, as is the knowledge that it can afflict almost everyone at times; I would offer that information to any students I teach.       

Science Poetry

IR Spectroscopy

“Motions molecular
Lead to conjecture
Re: key architecture of functional groups…
IR spectroscopy;
Target topography:
Features are quantified through linked Law of Hooke.” 

The 11 July 2019 poem discusses another kind of spectroscopy commonly used in organic chemistry coursework: infrared (IR) spectroscopy, which uses infrared light waves.  IR waves are shorter (and higher-energy) compared to the radio waves of NMR spectroscopy, but they are still longer (and lower-energy) than the light waves associated with visible light.   

“Motions molecular/ Lead to conjecture/ 
Re: key architecture of functional groups…”
A molecule is a chemical compound in which atoms are bonded to one another covalently, by sharing electrons.  One of the ways in which chemists think about these bonds is via the model of a tiny spring.  Springs can compress and elongate: bond lengths can shorten and lengthen, in “motions molecular.”  The energies involved in these changes in bond length are characteristic depending on what types of atoms are bonded together (what is at either end of the “spring”?).   Functional groups are groups of atoms that dictate how a molecule behaves.  For instance, an ether functional group contains an oxygen atom bonded to a carbon atom on either side.  Infrared (IR) spectroscopy provides information regarding the functional groups that a molecule contains: identifying the “key architecture” of that molecule.   

“IR spectroscopy;  /  Target topography: /
Features are quantified through linked Law of Hooke.”

NMR spectroscopy can provide precise evidence in support of the structure of a chemical compound, but IR spectroscopy is more generally useful.  The metaphor I use in this poem is a topographical map: the major landmarks (here, the functional groups of the molecule) are the most evident data.  While these calculations are typically not explored in detail until more advanced chemistry classes, it is also possible to predict the specific numbers behind a given piece of IR data: to quantify the features of the molecule.  This is done by analyzing the masses of the atoms involved and the force constant of the pertinent bond.  The calculations employ a model called Hooke’s Law, often introduced in a “linked” prerequisite: a student’s physics coursework.              

STEM Education Poetry

Mind Over Matter

Some lenses toward learning incline, yet
Their models aren’t in textbooks typeset: 
E. g., efforts renewed
Help us work to improve
Through the benefits of a growth mindset!  

This new (non-Twitter) poem presents another concept that is discussed widely in educational and psychological literature but not in chemistry textbooks directly, at least to my knowledge.  This limerick attempts to succinctly introduce Carol Dweck’s fascinating work on growth and fixed mindsets.  A growth mindset can be a powerful approach in any challenging situation…including a General Chemistry class!    

Some lenses towards learning incline, yet /
Their models aren’t in textbooks typeset.
The first two lines address the same idea discussed above: many techniques that could prove useful in mastering difficult material (the “lenses [that] towards learning incline”)  are not traditionally introduced in disciplinary references themselves: that is, they “aren’t in textbooks typeset.”  The chemistry textbooks that I personally have used, while excellent repositories of much information, have not included as much direct support for the processes of learning.  (Textbooks include a wealth of supporting information, both in marginalia and online, and thus do address such topics indirectly.  However, in my experience, most students do not notice this complementary information without a deliberate focus on study techniques in class, given the sheer volume of material covered and the algorithmic nature of most course assessments.)   

E.g., efforts renewed / Help us work to improve / 
Through the benefits of a growth mindset!  
The remaining lines summarize the concept of a growth mindset, an example of such a lens.  Carol Dweck, in her 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, contrasts fixed mindsets with growth mindsets.  The former treats knowledge and creativity as fixed: someone has them or they don’t; someone can understand chemistry or they can’t.  The latter, by contrast, presents both knowledge and creativity as works in progress: challenging chemistry material is an opportunity for someone to learn more and develop further, by “work[ing] to improve.”  While few students enrolled in General Chemistry are chemistry majors, the need to learn challenging material arises in all curricula, and every student can benefit from developing a mindset that facilitates resilience, builds on constructive criticism, and rewards continued effort

Science Poetry

NMR Spectroscopy

“Of nuclei, resonance magnetic:
Technique useful for research synthetic.
How the sample splits, shields 
In spectrometer’s field 
Can support/reject path theoretic.”

This limerick, posted 10 July 2019, and the one that follows involve topics of spectroscopy: experimental techniques that provide information about a chemical compound based on how the compound interacts with different types of electromagnetic radiation (light).  NMR spectroscopy relies on radio waves, which have longer wavelengths and lower energies than visible light waves.    

“Of nuclei, resonance magnetic: / 
Technique useful for research synthetic.”  
The technique of interest here involves the “resonance magnetic” of nuclei; it is more prosaically known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.  NMR spectroscopy is particularly useful for organic synthesis research, in which scientists seek to build new molecules, because it provides significant information about molecular structure; it can help answer the question of whether or not a target compound has been achieved. Proton NMR spectroscopy and carbon NMR spectroscopy provide detailed information about the hydrogen and carbon atoms, respectively, within an organic molecule: showing how the “carbon skeleton” fits together.    

“How the sample splits, shields /
In spectrometer’s field /
Can support/reject path theoretic.”

Charged particles (including certain types of nuclei) act as tiny magnets.  Magnets affect one another, and in the presence of an externally applied magnetic field from an instrument called an NMR spectrometer, information about these nuclei can thus be discerned.  

For example, a chemist can infer several pieces of data from the appearance of a proton NMR spectrum. The number of peaks (signals) represents the types of hydrogen atoms present (for example, a spectrum with four different peaks represents a compound with four chemically distinct types of hydrogen).  The intensity of each peak provides information about the number of each type of hydrogen atom.  The splitting patterns (singlets, doublets, etc.) and the chemical shifts (how “shielded” or “deshielded” a particular signal is) seen in each spectrum result from the chemical environments of the different types of hydrogen atoms.  A chemist pieces together this information to discern the identity of a synthesized compound, providing evidence in support or rejection of the “path theoretic”: i.e., the proposed mechanism.