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.)    

STEM Education Poetry

Anchor News

In Intro Chem, texts can fight focus.
But chemists themselves oft convoke; thus
For study sans rancor, 
See concepts that anchor
And for big ideas, central locus.  

This non-Twitter, STEM-education-themed poem addresses the sheer volume of material in an introductory chemistry textbook and one interesting set of disciplinary resources that students may find helpful in organizing their approaches to that material.  

“In Intro Chem, texts can fight focus.”
An introductory chemistry course shifts between vastly different subjects on a weekly basis.  Chemistry textbooks, while wonderful and creative resources, can seem overwhelming with the breadth of their coverage, as a student attempts to find key themes to emphasize in studying.  

“But chemists themselves oft convoke…”
The second line introduces a chemistry-education-related project that the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Education has developed in the past decade.  This project is not itself reported in a chemistry textbook but, as part of the scientific literature, has been published in journal articles and communicated at conference presentations.   This is acknowledged poetically via “chemists themselves oft convoke”: the substance of this project arises from disciplinary meetings and related written communication.    

“…thus/ For study sans rancor, /
See concepts that anchor /
And for big ideas, central locus.”  
The Anchoring Concepts Content Maps are resources that outline key themes for different subdisciplines of chemistry.  For instance, authors Thomas Holme, Cynthia Luxford, and Kristen Murphy have published the General Chemistry Concept Map, highlighting major ideas around which the content of a yearlong introductory chemistry sequence centers.  While the resources are described at the pertinent link for chemistry teachers, I have seen that students likewise find these resources useful, especially in approaching final exams.        

The language in lines 3-5 becomes a bit strained.  However, “study sans rancor… [through] concepts that anchor” is intended to say that these resources lead to a less stressful learning process!  Likewise, these content maps provide a useful “central locus”: a single place in which to find many key ideas of chemistry.      

STEM Education Poetry

Name That Tune

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle,
Little Star” share a melody single.  
The tunes are the same,
But when just naming names,
Common content can be tough to signal!    

This non-Twitter poem highlights an interesting challenge of communicating in scientific disciplines; this challenge certainly extends to introductory science courses.  

“The Alphabet” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, /
Little Star” share a melody single.  
Several childhood songs, including the alphabet song (a.k.a. “now I know my ABCs”), “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and others, have the same melody. However, that often is not obvious until one hums each tune to oneself. These initial two lines are rhythmically awkward, but they succinctly introduce a point that can resonate in a more complex context: during a STEM student’s undergraduate path, they often encounter common concepts in multiple courses.  

The tunes are the same, /
But when just naming names, /
Common content can be tough to signal!   
I remember one hallway conversation with a colleague teaching in a different STEM discipline; we were discussing the fact that thermodynamics had recently come up in both of our courses, but it was difficult for students taking both to transfer concepts and calculations between the two disciplinary presentations.  It didn’t take much time to identify the reason why. 

If we think about the process of heating a sample of water through all three of its phases, from solid ice to liquid water to gaseous steam, that process involves two “phase changes,” one from solid to liquid and one from liquid to gas.  At each of these, some heat energy is necessary to cause the phase change itself.  For instance, depending on sample size, it takes a certain amount of heat energy transferred at constant pressure to cause ice to melt to water: this was a concept that had recently come up in both my and my colleague’s courses. However, we soon realized that while I was discussing it in class as the enthalpy of that melting step, my colleague referred to it as the latent heat.  We each had learned the other term at some point, but it still took us a few seconds to recalibrate our discussion; we realized that students were likely hearing each unusual term as its own unusual concept, even with such an everyday process as the melting of ice.  

To directly link this anecdote to the limerick: the “melody” here is the familiar idea that melting ice to form water requires an input of heat energy at constant pressure.  However, that’s not immediately evident when “naming names” and learning the disciplinary vocabulary: the “common content” is challenging to realize. 

Different scientific disciplines require their own complicated disciplinary jargons for efficient communication among their specialists.  This can create quite a hurdle for novice learners, who often must take more than one introductory STEM course at once.  As with so many of these essays, my hope is that being aware of that obstacle might provide an important step towards navigating it.   

I will end here with a wonderful quotation from renowned organic chemist Percy Julian, whose words bring the essay to a close with a focus on another childhood rhyme.   

“I don’t want to frighten those of you who are not familiar with organic chemistry. I should have said in the beginning that one hardly expects an organic chemist to be able to speak without his gobbledygook in his language. As a matter of fact, one hardly expects a scientist to speak without that, and therefore scientists are usually and traditionally poor speakers, I warn you… The late Sir J. B. S. Haldane, the great biologist, put it rather aptly when he said that our language doesn’t lend itself to poetry. ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’ becomes impossible when you must call the ladybird Coccinella bipunctata.”

Dr. Percy Julian, quoted in “Forgotten Genius,” NOVA
STEM Education Poetry

Taking Note

“A lab notebook stands written sentry
Over data advanced, element’ry.
When the record is clear,
Future readers adhere,
To repeat work outlined in past entries.”

Revisiting the 30 September 2019 Twitter limerick through the lens of the STEM education-themed poems provides an opportunity to emphasize the lab notebook as an educational tool.

“A lab notebook stands written sentry /
Over data advanced, element’ry.”
Keeping a clear record of experimental data in a lab notebook is a learning objective in most undergraduate laboratories, from first-year introductory chemistry courses through upper-level majors’ courses.  These notebooks thus stand guard over data ranging from elementary to advanced.           

“When the record is clear, /
Future readers adhere, /
To repeat work outlined in past entries.”
Writing a lab notebook entry is a task for which there is no single “correct” approach.  However, a complete entry typically includes the following: a statement of purpose; information on amounts of reagents used and the procedures completed; the data collected; at least one sample calculation for each result; and a brief conclusion statement.  Data should be recorded in ink, and errors should be crossed out only with a single line apiece, so that the entire procedural record can be observed and understood.  I generally remind my students to write at a level of detail enabling a “future reader” (another chemist) to pick up the notebook and repeat the entire procedure from the “past entr[y].”

Since beginning my teaching work, I have been interested in revisiting lab notebook assignments as  writing-to-learn techniques.  I have asked students to turn in scanned pages from their first experiment for comments only: a “low-stakes” formative assessment, long before the lab notebook is graded at the close of the semester for a significant portion of the grade, in the traditional, “high-stakes” summative assessment.  More recently, I have been interested to learn further about writing across the curriculum initiatives in STEM. Writing and learning in chemistry are both iterative processes that can reinforce one another. 

STEM Education Poetry

Form and Function

“Committee work kicks off this week,
The third of fall semester.
The aim for each: a functional group!
À la the ketone, ester—
Will set structures henceforth guide us,
How in meetings we’ll react?
(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”

This past Twitter poem lines up with the current prose here in an intriguing way, as this is Week 3 of the current semester, Fall 2020.  This verse compares a common organic chemistry definition– “functional group”– to the everyday meaning of such a phrase. 

While this essay doesn’t examine an aspect of chemical education directly, in the same way most of the other STEM education poems have, it centers on an aspect of a faculty member’s schedule that may not be immediately evident to students and that may be thus useful to highlight. In particular, faculty members specifically reserve office hours to ensure that they have time available for student questions outside of class: otherwise, committee meetings and other service work can quickly overwhelm the calendar.

“Committee work kicks off this week, /
The third of fall semester…”
Generally speaking (in Fall 2019, for instance), the first two weeks of a fall semester are relatively slow in terms of service: the necessary committee work with respect to guiding a university’s curriculum and other important topics.  These tasks supplement a faculty member’s teaching and research.  (These lines don’t apply as well in this unusual autumn, when many meetings have been occurring all summer.)   

“The aim for each: a functional group!”
The third line of this poem introduces what will be revealed as a chemistry pun.  Certainly, one central goal for any committee is being a group that functions well.  

“À la the ketone, ester….”
The fourth line highlights the chemistry-specific meaning of “functional group.”  In organic chemistry, a functional group is a characteristic group of atoms that defines the function of a molecule.  For instance, if a molecule contains an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom (this is a pattern abbreviated as “R-OH”), it is said to contain an alcohol functional group, and chemists thus know that this molecule will undergo some established reaction pathways.  Two other common functional groups that fit particularly well in this rhyme scheme are ketones and esters.  

“Will set structures henceforth guide us, /
How in meetings we’ll react?”
Lines five and six make the comparison between the chemistry definition and everyday definition explicit: will the structure of a campus committee inform how it functions?  

“(This imagery is shaky,
But the rhyme scheme is intact.)”
The closing lines emphasize that the two definitions don’t truly overlap: work accomplished by a committee will always be far less predictable than the reactions available to organic molecules!

STEM Education Poetry

Distanced Drums

In the last few days of summer,
Academic tasks loom large,

And the campus seems deserted. 
Frantic chances to recharge,

All the faculty are seizing
As the August moments wane,

Ere the hectic Fall Semester 
To our lives returns again. 
Then, into this tired transition,
Hope arrives on yonder field:

Hark, the marching band’s crescendo
Causes lassitude to yield!

Suddenly, New Year seems promising;
Bleak mood is overcome,

As the mind and heart still answer
To the call of distant drums. 

I wrote these lines last year, before Autumn 2019, when I could not imagine how strange Autumn 2020 would be.  However, in finding this non-Twitter poem in a notebook last week, I considered how it represents many traditions that I still value about the fall semester– and that I still indirectly have observed in these early days.    

In the last few days of summer, /
Academic tasks loom large, /
And the campus seems deserted.

My college campus in a typical summer break is an interesting place: a great deal of work occurs, but not on an academic term’s timetable.  Faculty complete research, travel, and attend conferences, focusing on scholarship rather than classes.  In late summer, we return to our main focus of teaching preparation: significant work that often is accomplished more easily from home.  The last few days on campus before people officially return are thus particularly empty.    

Frantic chances to recharge, /
All the faculty are seizing /
As the August moments wane, /

Ere the hectic Fall Semester /
To our lives returns again.

I am generally aware in late August that my schedule is about to become much busier!  Most years (not this one), I take a short trip before required meetings begin, seizing “frantic chances to recharge” in those disappearing days.      

Then, into this tired transition, /
Hope arrives on yonder field: /
Hark, the marching band’s crescendo /
Causes lassitude to yield!

In many previous summers, I’ve had a moment when, in wearily traveling to or from my office in the week of meetings before classes, I’ve heard music (from “yonder” football field) and suddenly realized that students must be back on campus for marching band practice.  As a musician and former band member, I always notice and appreciate those familiar echoes.  The recognition provides an inspiring jolt of energy, “caus[ing] lassitude to yield,” reminding me of the promise of the upcoming semester, rather than the preparations still to finish. 

This year, unsure of what would happen with ensembles’ schedules, I was surprised and pleased to hear the late-summer music yet again. Moreover, these moments have continued into the fall term, as many instrumentalists and vocalists practice outside in socially distanced fashion, rehearsing across our main campus.      

Suddenly, New Year seems promising;
Bleak mood is overcome, /

As the mind and heart still answer /
To the call of distant drums. 

The poem’s last line borrows a phrase from the musical version of Les Misérables: throughout the show, characters anticipate the promise of a better tomorrow and listen for the “distant drums.”  This idealism has always resonated for me at the start of a new school year, especially at that moment of hearing the percussion in that first band practice.  (I’m hardly the first person to connect these themes with academia; I remember an excellent homage from 2015, starring faculty members at a professional development meeting!)  

Over the past few weeks, we have returned to campus in a variety of course spaces.  It’s been an unusual experience: remote learning and online discussions in some rooms; social distancing and Plexiglass barriers in others.  However, looking past these (“beyond the barricades,” perhaps), many things are consistent: the start of a new academic year; its combination of welcome routines and unwritten pages.  The early days of classes still represent enormous promise and heartening constancy in this challenging time; the cadences still sound.   

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.        

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.