STEM Education Poetry

Asynchronous Marches

“Since pomp and circumstance are,
In this Sunday’s scene, secluded,
To lines in verse instead,
Re: 2020, I’ve alluded…
We’ll tell this– not with sighs, but cheers–
In all the ages hence:
The story of our class for whom,
In March, grad march commenced.”

The 3 May 2020 poem was written in honor of the Spring 2020 graduates from my institution; they unfortunately were unable to have their scheduled graduation ceremony, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This upcoming weekend marks the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021, and so this essay provides a logical place to pause these updates for a few weeks: to celebrate the conclusion of another challenging academic year.    

“Since pomp and circumstance are, /
In this Sunday’s scene, secluded, /
To lines in verse instead, /
Re: 2020, I’ve alluded…”
The pomp and circumstance of commencement ceremonies generally provide a welcome and fitting end to an academic year.  During Spring 2020, these attributes were necessarily “secluded”; it was not possible for students and faculty to gather for a celebratory event.  

In the days leading up to what would have been the 2020 graduation ceremony, I thought often of some of the phrases in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  I referenced these “lines in verse” in this poem, in writing about the circumstances of the spring (“Re: 2020”).  

“We’ll tell this– not with sighs, but cheers– / 
In all the ages hence: /
The story of our class for whom, / 
In March, grad march commenced.”     
Whenever I mention an existing poem in one of my own verses, I am torn; Twitter’s character limit prohibits exploring any nuance in a given post, and I lack the expertise to do so, even had I sufficient space.  All that said, though, I built on Frost’s description of “telling this with a sigh / [s]omewhere ages and ages hence,” in my last four lines.  

We will remember our 2020 graduates far into the future, but with a celebratory air, rather than a melancholy one.  These students achieved significant accomplishments in successfully finishing their coursework, despite their early departures from campus: despite the fact that their “grad march” technically began in March 2020.       

Happily, though, this weekend, we will celebrate the classes of both 2020 and 2021.  Thus, the graduation march described in this poem has turned out to be a path delayed, but still taken.  

STEM Education Poetry

Pacing Around

“The weekend’s lost its ‘free-time’ grace;
My kitchen’s now my classroom’s place.
I walk around apartment space:
My courses are all quite self-paced!”

The 18 April 2020 poem directly noted the unique circumstances of teaching in the Spring 2020 semester, as all classes abruptly shifted online in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.      

“The weekend’s lost its ‘free-time’ grace; / 
My kitchen’s now my classroom’s place..”
The 2020-21 academic year has been a challenging mixture of online and in-person teaching, but Summer 2020 at least provided time to learn about resources and optimize an approach.  In contrast, March and April 2020 were truly a blur, with everything suddenly and immediately online.  Each day blended into the next, and it was vital to use the weekends to prepare course materials for the coming week, since the weeks themselves involved a steady stream of email conversations and meetings.  The weekends no longer provided any break (they lost their “‘free-time’ grace”).  

As I’m guessing was the case for many faculty members, my kitchen table became “my classroom’s place,” replacing my home desk; a computer, textbooks, notes, and a document camera required more space than a personal desk could provide!  

“I walk around apartment space: /
My courses are all quite self-paced!”
Looking back at Spring 2020 from Spring 2021, I note that, although the current moment is still strange, it’s far less uncertain than those first weeks seemed.  I spent most of last spring walking in only the geographical space of my apartment complex (“around apartment space”), as so many businesses and public spaces were also suddenly closed.    

In terms of my teaching, the work alluded to in the first lines primarily involved creating asynchronous resources: providing documents and videos that could be linked online, so that students (whose schedules had likewise shifted enormously in only a few days) had as much flexibility as possible in learning the material.  These could also be construed as “self-paced” courses… a description which mimicked my daily routine. 

STEM Education Poetry

Remote Possibilities

“Working through past few weeks, most confounding;  
Wand’ring lonely in quiet, surrounding: 
To my classrooms– remote now–
Resolutely, I’ll note how
Spring’s hope, still, is eternally sounding.” 

On 26 March 2020, I posted the first Twitter poem reacting to what had been, since its second week, a thoroughly discombobulating month!  This limerick summed up some major changes in my teaching and non-teaching times, as my chemistry classes moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.    

“Working through past few weeks, most confounding; /
Wand’ring lonely in quiet, surrounding…”
It is difficult to remember how strange that initial shift in Spring 2020 seemed.  New data and best practices were emerging every day, if not every hour.  Moving to fully online courses, when I’d previously used our classroom management system primarily to store files, was “most confounding.”  One useful routine was an early-morning walk; borrowing a turn of phrase from Wordsworth and “wan’dring lonely” along the path near my home, I had time to gather my thoughts before teaching and meetings. 

“To my classrooms– remote now– /
Resolutely, I’ll note how /
Spring’s hope, still, is eternally sounding.”  
By late March, my students and I were adjusting to our remote set-up, which would take us through late April and the end of the spring term.  I was glad to have the opportunity to speak synchronously (in real time) to some of my classes; this note of normalcy was welcome.  Another silver lining was the arrival of many typical signs of spring in the midst of these challenges and uncertainties.  Seeing flowers, birds, and blue skies provided much hope, “eternally sounding,” in an uncertain time.  

The first part of this poem echoed William Wordsworth; the second echoed Alexander Pope;  both were acknowledged in the hashtags.  While it seemed trivial to mark the occasion with a Twitter poem then, I’m glad to revisit the verse now.  Moreover, writing this particular poem helped convince me to repeat the previous April’s effort of NaPoWriMo, starting a few days later.  Much like my morning walks, the writing routine would provide some much-needed structure.

STEM Education Poetry

Fall Finale

“The campus is in Finals Week,
And stress is thus at Finals Peak,
With projects, tests, reports at stake.
Five days to go; then, take a break!”  

The 9 December 2019 poem celebrates the end of a semester… as does this brief essay.  

“The campus is in Finals Week, /
And stress is thus at Finals Peak, /
With projects, tests, reports at stake.”  
Finals Week always provides a busy end to the semester, with exams, papers, and presentations due in a wide array of subjects.  Campus stress levels are collectively at a maximum, referred to here as “Finals Peak”!  

“Five days to go; then, take a break!”
In Fall 2019, this was posted on the Monday of Finals Week; only “five days to go” remained until the Friday of that week and thus the start of students’ winter break.  (Certainly, for faculty, grading is a remaining final hurdle before break, but it is generally simpler to accomplish that when meetings and classes are done.) 

Fall 2020 is remarkably different in many ways from Fall 2019, and so it is a particular relief to see Finals Week approach in the days ahead.  While the poem does not quantitatively represent the number of days remaining in this particular autumn, we are qualitatively near the curricular finish line, having reached the Thanksgiving break.   

I will take a cue from the 2019 poem and pause updates here for a few days, until I can reassess my writing plans during a welcome semester break.  Meanwhile, I will remember the immense patience, creativity, and fortitude that all of campus brought to the challenges of this historic year, and I know that pattern has been repeated in many other schools and colleges around the world.    

STEM Education Poetry

Under Pressure

“We’re in the home stretches of classes:
For Gen Chem, the chapter on gases.
(Last subject to finish—
Its volume’s diminished 
In pressure-increased circumstances.)”

The 2 December 2019 limerick builds on two key variables used in the specific context of gas chemistry to acknowledge a curricular constraint often seen at the end of a busy semester.  

“We’re in the home stretches of classes: /
For Gen Chem, the chapter on gases.
I’ve used a variety of textbooks in General Chemistry during my teaching career, but the break between fall semester coverage and spring semester coverage has consistently fallen between the discussion of gases and the discussion of condensed phases (solids and liquids).  Thus the “home stretch” of General Chemistry 1– the final conceptual distance covered– is “the chapter on gases.”  

“(Last subject to finish… /
Its volume’s diminished /
In pressure-increased circumstances.)”
One of the laws historically developed to describe gas chemistry was Boyle’s Law, which relates the pressure of a gaseous system to its volume; the law is named for Robert Boyle, who was a chemist and physicist who worked in the 17th century on many questions of scientific interest.  Boyle’s Law states that as the pressure of a gas increases (assuming a constant amount at constant temperature), the volume decreases; as the pressure decreases (assuming a constant amount at constant temperature), the volume increases.  The most widely used equation that expresses this relationship is p1V1 = p2V2, where p and V represent pressure and volume, respectively.  

The last few lines of this limerick extend this relationship to the reality of a rapidly ending semester: when faced with the “pressure-increased circumstances” of the approaching final exam, instructors often must curtail coverage of a last chapter, causing its volume to diminish, in terms of the time devoted to it in class!

STEM Education Poetry

Molecular Modeling

“Calculations’ iterations
Cycle towards convergence.
Geometric, spectrometric
Data find emergence.
Supplement experiment:
These calcs will henceforth service,
Illustrate.  Once-obfuscating
Concepts thus gain purchase.” 

The 18 November 19 Twitter poem had the hashtag of “#ComputationalChemLabIntro”; it attempted to summarize the main ideas of computational chemistry for a student audience. I’m most used to doing this in a pre-lab lecture: a brief explanation in a lab setting before students try out a technique on their own. (Such lectures are necessarily quite prosaic, so this was an interesting change.)     

“Calculations’ iterations /
Cycle towards convergence.”
One typical computational chemistry calculation involves optimizing a molecule’s geometry: finding the three-dimensional arrangement of the molecular structure that will lead to the lowest energy possible.  Such an undertaking tends to be complex and lengthy.  Chemistry calculations undergo an iterative (cyclical) process until convergence is reached: until the outputs of consecutive cycles agree to a reasonable extent.       

“Geometric, spectrometric /
Data find emergence.”
Once a calculation is complete, the results can be used to explore the molecule’s optimized geometry (what are the bond lengths and angles in this now-minimum-energy molecule?) and to model its spectroscopic behavior (how does this molecule behave in the presence of different energies of light?).  Thus, the “data find emergence,” and a chemist can use these data to better understand a molecule or reaction of interest.  

“Supplement experiment: /
These calcs will henceforth service, / Illustrate…”
Computational chemistry work completed in lab can supplement findings from previous experiments, illustrating and visualizing molecular-level behaviors responsible for macroscopic observations.   

“…Once-obfuscating /
Concepts thus gain purchase.”
Moreover, being able to observe molecular geometries or spectroscopic properties often can clarify a previously-confusing (“once-obfuscating”) concept from lecture.  

This was an attempt at a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque rhyme scheme for a Twitter poem.  The title here, “Molecular Modeling,” is both a common phrase for computational chemistry work and an allusion to their famous song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” This musical number has seen far more famous and skillful chemistry-related uses, but I enjoyed striving for the many internal rhymes in this particular poem. 

STEM Education Poetry

Basic (and Acidic) Principles

“Reactions termed neutralizations
Involve acid-base situations.
In the intro chem locus,
Brønsted-Lowry’s the focus.
Water, salt gen’rally form at cessation.”  

The 11 November 2019 Twitter limerick focused on acid-base chemistry, a common topic in introductory chemistry coursework that can be viewed through multiple theoretical lenses.    

“Reactions termed neutralizations /
Involve acid-base situations.”
For a chemistry student, the discussion of acid-base chemistry first arrives in the chapter on aqueous reactions.  Via Arrhenius theory, an acid ionizes in water to produce hydrogen ions (H+); a base ionizes in water to produce hydroxide ions (OH).  When an Arrhenius acid and an Arrhenius base react, water (H2O) forms as one characteristic product of the reaction; water has a neutral pH.

“In the intro chem locus, /
Brønsted-Lowry’s the focus.”
Acid-base principles arise multiple times in chemistry coursework.  Different frameworks (Arrhenius acid-base theory, Brønsted-Lowry acid-base theory, and Lewis acid-base theory) are used to understand different types of reactions.  Brønsted-Lowry theory is a major focus of General Chemistry 2 (an “intro chem locus”).  While it is related to Arrhenius theory, it can account for non-aqueous reactions (those not in water) as well: acids are proton (H+) donors, and bases are proton acceptors.  Lewis theory is commonly used in Organic Chemistry.  It presents acid-base chemistry in terms of electron behavior: Lewis acids are electron-pair acceptors, and Lewis bases are electron-pair donors.        

“Water, salt gen’rally form at cessation.”
This last line revisits the first two, describing characteristic products of a neutralization reaction from the discussion of Arrhenius theory.  For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) react to form water and sodium chloride (table salt), as shown below.
HCl (aq) + NaOH (aq) → H2O (l) + NaCl (aq)

This limerick conflates two theories to serve the rhyme scheme, a point that is useful to acknowledge here with a less constrained character limit!   Lines 1, 2, and 5 allude to Arrhenius theory most directly, while Lines 3 and 4 reference Brønsted-Lowry theory. Students will encounter both views in General Chemistry.  

STEM Education Poetry

Solution Focused

“This math quantifies a dilution;  
Molarity of new solution, 
M2, can be found.
Shift equation around: 
M1 times V1; over V2.  Done!” 

This Twitter poem, originally posted 4 November 2019, discusses a common equation taught in General Chemistry, taking significant advantage of chemical shorthand to fit into the limerick structure.  One focus of an introductory chemistry course involves solution stoichiometry: the arithmetic governing reactions that take place in aqueous solution (in water).   

“This math quantifies a dilution…”
Quantifying (calculating) what happens when an aqueous solution is watered-down, or diluted, involves a key equation, the terms of which will be defined subsequently: M1V1 = M2V2.

“Molarity of new solution, /
M2, can be found.”
Chemists use “molarity” as a convenient unit of concentration: how much of a solute of interest, represented in moles, will be present in one liter of a solution

Using the equation above, we compare the molarity and volume of a stock solution– properties of a reagent we could take off the stockroom shelf, denoted here as “solution 1”– to the molarity and volume of a new solution, denoted as “solution 2.”  Specifically, we can find the molarity of the new solution, represented correctly as M2 and in the poem as M2.  (As ever, I lament my inability to have used subscripts with the original post.)     

“Shift equation around: /
M1 times V1; over V2.  Done!”  
This is a strained set of lines: algebraic explanations are not poetic.  However, this is how I’d teach the concept in class, manipulating the variables of molarity (M) and volume (V).  

Starting with the equation of interest (M1V1 = M2V2) and rearranging to solve for M2, we end up with M2 = (M1V1)/V2.  To get there, we “shift the equation around.”  The product of the molarity and volume of the original solution is in the numerator (“M1 times V1”), while the volume of the new solution (“V2”) is now in the denominator.  That completes our calculation (“Done!”).  The double meaning of “solution” is interesting to consider here, as we find the solution to an algebraic calculation that itself involves the characteristics of an aqueous solution.       

STEM Education Poetry

Dimensional Analysis

“To analyze problems dimensional,
Use method routine and conventional: 
All your units bookkeep,
Lest unwanted flaw creep
Into calcs, causing steps unintentional.”

The 28 October 2019 Twitter limerick is a common exhortation in my classroom, presented here as a poetic refrain.  

“To analyze problems dimensional, /
Use method routine and conventional…” 
Dimensional analysis is a mathematical technique used in a variety of STEM classes.  Every time I teach the practice in General Chemistry, I remind students to use a tried-and-true method– “routine and conventional”– for checking their answers.  

“All your units bookkeep, /
Lest unwanted flaw creep /
Into calcs, causing steps unintentional.”
A quantity in chemistry is properly represented as both a number and the associated unit (for a simple example, “a dozen eggs” is equivalent to “12 eggs,” not simply “12”).   Chemists and other scientists use “SI units,” those defined by the International System of Units, to report length (meters, or m), mass (kilograms, or kg), and other quantities; these are part of the metric system.  Other systems of measurement exist; for instance, the USA uses what is known as its customary system, defining miles, feet, and inches, among many others.  Different units can be converted into one another through the use of conversion factors (for instance, 1 inch = 2.54 centimeters).      

Whenever students are completing chemistry-related calculations (“calcs,” for short), I repeat the importance of including units at all times, via chemical “bookkeeping.”  Units can be treated algebraically and canceled out, via the steps of dimensional analysis, to ensure that calculations progress properly toward a target quantity.  

I often see in grading homework that students tend to omit units until reporting their final answer, and I warn against this, as it can lead to wasted time (“steps unintentional”) or– more problematically– errors (“unwanted flaw[s]”).  Infamously, mismatches in units have caused some notorious moments in STEM history, as with the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999. 

STEM Education Poetry

Unmitigated Gallium

“This metal in hot tea will fast succumb,
Its melting point readily overcome.
So spoon disappearing
Is chem feat endearing–
A keen fact reported re: gallium.”

This was one of two limericks written for National Chemistry Week 2019 that focused on specific metals; this one was posted on 24 October 2019.  This particular poem referenced gallium via Sam Kean’s entertaining 2011 book about the history of the Periodic Table of the Elements: The Disappearing Spoon.     

“This metal in hot tea will fast succumb, /
Its melting point readily overcome.”
In The Disappearing Spoon, science writer Sam Kean describes a practical joke common to chemists.  A spoon can be fashioned out of pure gallium (“unmitigated” gallium, justifying the pun used in the title!) and served alongside a cup of piping-hot tea.  Gallium’s melting point, at around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (or around 30 degrees Celsius), is “readily overcome” by the tea, and so the spoon quickly melts in this setting. 

“So spoon disappearing /
Is chem feat endearing– /
A keen fact reported re: gallium.”
This phenomenon is well known enough as a popular parlor trick that it became the central image of Kean’s book; it is a “chem feat endearing.”  The structure of this particular poem, in which the riddle of the element is not revealed until the final few syllables, was particularly fun to write, reminding me of the weekly limerick challenges on NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.”  

A common theme in these essays is the challenge inherent in teaching General Chemistry of balancing the fascinating narratives and biographies of science with the content required in a general STEM course.  I thus often find myself alluding to or describing Kean’s book when I introduce the Periodic Table of the Elements, to better acknowledge these many underlying “Science 2” stories.