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. 

STEM Education Poetry

Calculated Efforts

“With Avogadro’s number–
And a molar mass to boot–
We can practice stoichiometry
And many calcs compute!    
(If using six times ten
Raised to the power twenty-third,
Be sure to check your answers
So their scale is not absurd!)”

The Twitter poem posted on 23 October 2019 can be viewed as a STEM education-themed poem; it is written in a “teacher’s voice” and examines a chemistry-specific metacognitive technique.    

“With Avogadro’s number– /
And a molar mass to boot– /
We can practice stoichiometry /
And many calcs compute!”
The first four lines specifically were posted on Twitter during National Chemistry Week 2019.  “Avogadro’s number” is named in honor of Amedeo Avogadro, who has been cited in this space before regarding his gas law, which related the amount of a gas to its volume.  The SI unit for amount is the mole.  Chemists use Avogadro’s number to convert between moles of a substance and the number of atoms or molecules of that substance.  A useful and common analogy is the concept of a dozen.  Saying someone has a dozen eggs is equivalent to saying someone has twelve eggs.  Saying someone has one mole of eggs is equivalent to saying someone has 6.022 x 1023 eggs.  Given its magnitude, Avogadro’s number is useful in converting between the particulate scale and the macroscopic scale

The concept of molar mass relates moles to the more familiar unit of grams.  The number underneath an element’s chemical symbol on the periodic table is its molar mass: the number of  grams in one mole of the element.  For example, measuring out 12.01 grams of carbon is equivalent to measuring out one mole of carbon, which is equivalent to measuring out 6.022 x 1023 atoms of carbon. Mastering these concepts opens the door to a wide array of interesting calculations, collectively termed stoichiometry.        

(If using six times ten /
Raised to the power twenty-third, /
Be sure to check your answers /
So their scale is not absurd!)”
I refrained from posting these final four lines on Twitter last fall since, without additional context, the second set of rhymes could sound critical.  As alluded to above, though, this is a common refrain in my classroom, whenever Avogadro’s number (“six times ten raised to the power twenty-third,” poetically) is involved.  I remind students that as they are converting between grams, moles, and numbers of atoms, the scales of the numbers will be very different.  (For instance, a 10.00 gram sample of carbon is equivalent to 0.8326 moles of carbon, a quantity which is equivalent to 5.014 x 1023 atoms of carbon.)  A student can always use common sense and these very different scales to double-check that they’ve not reported an incorrect answer where the scale is accidentally “absurd”: they can think about their thinking, via a chemistry-specific metacognitive technique.   

STEM Education Poetry

Midterm Assessment

Though I strive for increasing simplicities,
Class preps melt into muddled cyclicities.  
Here in Fall 2020,
There’s effort a-plenty
In balancing Chem’s synchronicities. 

This non-Twitter poem is not so much intended to elucidate any aspect of STEM education as to acknowledge this challenging autumn for faculty and students alike, here in the middle of the fall semester.   

“Though I strive for increasing simplicities, /
Class preps melt into muddled cyclicities.”
I’ve spoken with a few of my colleagues about how much the 2020-21 academic year reminds us of our respective first years on the tenure track.  It is a major shift to go from the research focus of postdoctoral work into full-time “class prep”: generating sets of notes with which to stay at least a day (or at least a few hours!) ahead of the class sessions that require those resources.  Since real-time teaching itself– organizing lectures, grading assessments, etc.– easily constitutes the substance of a normal work week, any term a professor has a completely new course is notable for the additional work it involves.  

The poem’s first two lines acknowledge that, although I attempted over the summer to prepare, it wasn’t fully possible.  Thus, recently, time has seemed to “melt into muddled cyclicit[y],” as it did a decade ago, when I began my teaching work; it’s easy to lose track of the days, moving through this befuddling term!  

“Here in Fall 2020, /
There’s effort a-plenty /
In balancing Chem’s synchronicities.”          
Teaching is very rewarding, but it’s also considerably time-consuming this autumn, mainly because I’ve been learning best practices pertaining to remote classrooms.  “Balancing Chem’s synchronicities” is a shorthand for those daily routines: preparing coherent lecture outlines and videos to be available asynchronously; maintaining synchronous classroom sessions, so that students and I can discuss questions on useful timescales. (I’ve been most fortunate to work with wonderful classes and colleagues; as I predicted in Week 1, the “effort a-plenty” is a shared endeavor throughout the department and across campus.)