STEM Education Poetry

Grade Escape

Epic aesthetic:
The verse is poetic;
The theme’s arithmetic;
The week ends the fall,
Grading pervading
These days of equating.
Term’s end; still unfading:
Well done, one and all!

The 3 December 2020 Twitter poem was written at the end of the compressed Fall 2020 semester.  While we are still finishing up classes this particular week, I think the “grading week” is getting close enough to celebrate in this post the end of Fall 2021, as well.  

“Epic aesthetic: /
The verse is poetic; /
The theme’s arithmetic; /
The week ends the fall…”

This was a fun poem to write, as it took the pseudo-double-dactyl form and added several additional internal references and rhymes. 

The end of Autumn 2020 felt quite epic: after many weeks of strange circumstances, it was an achievement to reach the end.  The second line was quite obvious; less so, the third, which noted the “arithmetic theme” of the week following final exams, in which grades were calculated and assigned.   

“Grading pervading /
These days of equating. /
Term’s end; still unfading: /
Well done, one and all!”

If I had to guess, I think this poem likely originated in its fifth line, with “grading pervading” most of my waking thoughts that week, as I aimed to finish up the challenging semester. The other lines fell into place around that central image/rhyme.  The “days of equating” included the range of calculations and spreadsheets necessary to compile and assign letter grades, before reaching the winter break, or the “grade escape” of the essay title here.  And finally, the last few lines saluted the same effort I’d anticipated at the start of the semester, “still unfading,” from the entire campus community.  

This will likely be the last post for a while, as it’s been another long autumn!   

STEM Education Poetry

Thinking Thankfully

Fall 2020 winds
Down to a close in
Semester historic with
Finals week near. 
Faculty, students, and
Staff can consider, most
Thankfully, respite from
Challenging year.

The 23 November 2020 Twitter poem highlighted the nearing “finish line” of the autumn semester, commemorated by the week’s Thanksgiving break.  

“Fall 2020 winds /
Down to a close in /
Semester historic with /
Finals week near…”

Autumn 2021 has also been unusual, but there are many welcome returns to routine that I have noted with the passing weeks: classes in person; events on campus.  The 2020 fall semester was truly historic, and it was a relief to near the end of the semester.   

“Faculty, students, and /
Staff can consider, most /
Thankfully, respite from /
Challenging year.”

This will be a short post: not much can be said beyond a statement of gratitude for the immense efforts expended by the entire university community over the past year and a half, aiming for the best possible outcomes in incredibly challenging circumstances.  As always, the Thanksgiving weekend is a good chance to gather energy for the final few weeks of projects and exams in the semester.    

STEM Education Poetry

Floating Ideas

Gaseous chapter frames
P, V, n, R, T:
Equation “ideal.”
(Think re: gas species’ own
Volumes and actions as
Rule is expanded to
Statement more “real.”)

The 16 November 2020 Twitter poem commemorated a traditionally late-in-semester topic, with a summary of some key equations related to gas chemistry.  

“Gaseous chapter frames /
Axiomatic’ly /
P, V, n, R, T: /
Equation ‘ideal.’”

One of the most useful equations in an introductory chemistry course is the ideal gas law, which combines several principles of gas behavior into an equation, “axiomatic’ly”: PV = nRT.  Here, P represents pressure, V represents volume, n represents amount, R is the gas constant, and T represents temperature.  

The ideal gas law is a flexible formula that has several useful applications for scientists, letting us both see qualitative relationships (e.g., at constant volume and amount, pressure is directly proportional to temperature) and complete a variety of calculations related to these properties.      

“(Think re: gas species’ own /
Volumes and actions as /
Rule is expanded to /
Statement more ‘real.’)”

The ideal gas law is named as such because it idealizes gas behavior, imagining that an atom or molecule of any gas (regardless of chemical identity) will act in the same way as an atom or molecule of any other gas.  Gas particles are envisioned as spheres that undergo efficient collisions at the particulate level, resulting in the big-picture properties modeled by the ideal gas law at the macroscopic level.  The volume of the gas sample is treated as the volume of the gas’s container

Scientists have also developed “real” gas laws, which take gas molecules’ own chemical behaviors into account: the volumes that the gas molecules occupy and the intermolecular forces exhibited by each specific molecule.  In other words, they “think re: gas species’ own volumes and actions,” compiling experimental parameters for a variety of gases to more accurately represent behavior in extreme conditions (such as high pressure).  Multiple real gas equations have been devised. 

STEM Education Poetry

Reporting Back

“Writing a lab report!
Challenging hurdle in
Finishing weekly work:
Goals, findings linked. 
Provide the record most
Share with the audience:
Summ’ry succinct.”

The 9 November Twitter poem highlights another common writing endeavor from STEM courses: drafting and revising a lab report, after writing up the week’s experiment in the lab notebook.  

“Writing a lab report! /
Challenging hurdle in /
Finishing weekly work: /
Goals, findings linked.”

Laboratory (lab) courses generally require a subsequent write-up of objectives, procedure, and results, after each week’s experiment is completed.  This is a separate writing endeavor from keeping a lab notebook and involves a more formal writing effort.  While report format can vary across scientific fields, the main idea of reporting both “goals [and] findings” is consistent.  

“Provide the record most /

In chemistry lab reports, one main aim is contextualizing the data and calculations involved in the experimental procedure.  For a synthetic experiment, what were the masses of the reagents, and what was the ensuing theoretical yield? If the experiment involved a spectroscopic procedure, what were the instrumental settings and the findings of interest?  Are these results on a plausible scale, and can the student show/support the path by which they obtained their findings?  These data and analyses tend primarily to be quantitative, or “quantificational,” in double-dactyl parlance.  

“Share with the audience: /
Summ’ry succinct.”

More generally, other essays in this space have also addressed writing lab reports and scientific papers as key parts of a STEM education.  The skill set of using observational and communication techniques to write an effective explanatory report to a specific audience is one that will undeniably transfer into a wide variety of post-graduate paths.  

However, to return to the “challenging hurdle” characterization in the second line, it is also undeniable that a lab-report-writing effort can be frustrating in the moment, as it requires simultaneously learning and using a challenging disciplinary jargon to succinctly sum up a complicated procedure.  

STEM Education Poetry

Noting It Well

“Keeping a notebook:
Lab bibliotherapy;
Data, procedure in
Tome here are stored.
Calcs and reagents and
The table of contents, 
Their order records.”

The 2 November 2020 Twitter poem described one of the most ubiquitous tasks that a chemistry student or chemist completes: keeping a lab notebook.  

“Keeping a notebook: /
Lab bibliotherapy; /
Data, procedure in /
Tome here are stored…”

In the interdisciplinary seminar I’ve described previously, we discuss types of disciplinary documentation.  We read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and examine similarities and differences between her observational record and the lab notebooks that many of the science students are assigned.    

One observation that arises quickly is the audience of a writer’s notebook versus a chemist’s notebook.  Didion writes daily observations in contemplating her own life: “[T]he point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking…  Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”  

In contrast, students are often familiar with my general exhortation: “Make sure your notebook is detailed enough that another chemist could pick it up and repeat your experiment!”  STEM lab notebooks follow systematic formats; “data [and] procedure” must be carefully recorded, using notation that other scientists understand.  

“Calcs and reagents and /
Instrumentation: /
The table of contents, /
Their order records.”

Other required notebook elements include materials (reagents) used in an experiment, sample calculations, and specific instrumental details; as an academic term proceeds, a running table of contents is updated.

The image on this website’s homepage is a photograph of pages from my great-grandfather’s now-century-old lab notebook.  (Someday soon, that notebook deserves an essay of its own; the phrase “keeping a notebook,” of course, has multiple resonances.)  Noting the theme of this poem, specifically, I demonstrate how consistent these main goals have been for students and scientists across the years, using the historical document as a reference in the course. 

STEM Education Poetry

Precipitation Events

“Cations, anions:
Test in the lab if
Their aqueous combo
Yields chemical ‘storm.’
(Charts can be voluble,
Re: rules insoluble.
Key to observe:
Does precipitate form?)”

The 26 October 2020 Twitter poem provided an overview of qualitative analysis, a classic chemistry lab experiment that builds on the concept of the precipitation reaction.  It employs the pseudo-double-dactyl form increasingly commonly found in this space.    

“Cations, anions: /
Test in the lab if /
Their aqueous combo /
Yields chemical ‘storm.’”

Ionic compounds consist of positively charged ions (cations) bonded to negatively charged ions (anions) through electrostatic forces: the attraction between opposite charges.  The resulting compounds are classified as water-soluble or water-insoluble, depending on whether they dissolve in water.  While water is polar and excellent at dissolving many ionic compounds (since its own partial charges can repel and attract the charges present in the ionic compounds), certain cations and anions are attracted so strongly to one another that the compounds they form do not dissolve in water.      

In a typical lab experiment, students are given a series of “unknown solutions” (unidentified ionic compounds dissolved in water) and discern which elements are present in the unknowns, by combining the unknown solutions with known reagents.  

Two water-soluble compounds [denoted by (aq), for “aqueous”] exchange their ions.  If either “post-exchange” compound is then water-insoluble [denoted by (s), for “solid”], it forms a precipitate, as shown here [AD (s)]:       

AB (aq) + CD (aq) → AD (s) + CB (aq)

The solid’s crashing out of solution is designated poetically as a “chemical storm,” describing the observed behavior via another precipitation definition.    

“(Charts can be voluble, /
Re: rules insoluble. /
Key to observe: /
Does precipitate form?)”

Charts of solubility rules provide students with guidelines for which combinations of cations and anions form precipitates.  Using these lengthy (“voluble”) sets of rules, along with their lab data, students predict what ions must have been present in the unknown solutions.      

These experiments are termed “qualitative analysis” because they involve analysis by way of qualitative (non-quantitative/non-calculation-based) observations of the reaction: most simply, does a solid precipitate form or not?    

STEM Education Poetry

Midterm Moments

Halfway through pathway to
End of semester, in
Midst of October as 
Projects abound.
Hectic, eclectic:
Exams will accumulate;
Heed well the schedule;
Assignments compound!

This Twitter poem was posted on 12 October 2020, and the timing lines up well with the current academic calendar. It is not particularly mysterious in its chemistry content, compared to some of the last few!  

“Halfway through pathway to /
End of semester, in /
Midst of October as /
Projects abound…”
Our autumn semester starts in late August and ends in early December. Thus, depending on the course in question, a midterm exam or project in mid-October tends to mark the halfway point.  

This poem found its inspiration in the “halfway… pathway” sounds, along with the timing of the calendar.  The two similar words suggested the double dactyl rhythm.  

“Hectic, eclectic:
Exams will accumulate;
Heed well the schedule;
Assignments compound!”
Part of the challenge of an academic semester is the wide variety of assignments and assessments that add up over the course of a student’s overall schedule. Often, multiple exams or due dates land on the same day, and so it’s necessary to “[h]eed well the schedule“ to ensure time to prepare for everything, as needed. 

The last line, with the pun on the word “compound,” is the main link to chemistry content in this particular poem; the sense of accumulating exam stress is likely familiar to students in any academic field! 

STEM Education Poetry

Alkane Knowledge

“Naming a molecule:
Precise endeavor that
Draws on organic skills
Nuanced and vast.
Start with the carbon chains;
Look for the longest (and
So on, and so on, with
Concepts from class).”

The 5 October 2020 Twitter poem addressed a common objective from introductory and organic chemistry coursework: learning how to name a molecule.  

“Naming a molecule: /
Precise endeavor that /
Draws on organic skills /
Nuanced and vast.”
A few of these posts have already addressed some of the intricacies of chemical nomenclature.  Chemists have developed systematic rules for naming compounds: an early consideration is whether a compound is inorganic or organic, as each classification requires its own precise set of rules.  These rules are managed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC.  Organic compounds are often interchangeably called molecules.  To name a molecule thus requires “organic skills [that are] nuanced and vast.”

“Start with the carbon chains; /
Look for the longest (and /
So on, and so on, with /
Concepts from class).”
In an acyclic hydrocarbon molecule, the first rule of naming is to identify the longest carbon chain.  This will inherently give the root word of the name; for instance, a saturated hydrocarbon chain containing six carbons all bonded to one another in a line is called hexane.  

The dismissive “and so on, and so on” mention in the poem omits much follow-up information.  The rules of naming then involve considering what side chains are bonded to that longest chain, whether any functional groups are involved, whether any double or triple bonds are present, and many other considerations.   It requires much practice to use nomenclature “concepts from class” in any efficient way.  

The title here confines our analysis to the very simplest cases: hydrocarbon compounds where each carbon atom is saturated, or bonded to four other atoms; such compounds are called alkanes.  Moreover, the title allows a play on words with “arcane knowledge,” a description that can certainly seem apt for nomenclature! 

STEM Education Poetry

Cataloging Contents

“Beakers and 
Test tubes and
Funnels and 
Stir rods;
Pipettes and
Condensers and
Glassware galore.
Bunsen burner; 
A mortar and pestle;
All in lab drawer.”

The 28 September 2020 Twitter poem used dactylic feet to catalog some of the many pieces of lab equipment used in introductory chemistry.  

“Beakers and /
Test tubes and /
Funnels and /
Stir rods; /
Pipettes and /
Condensers and /
Glassware galore.”
The first week of a lab course is typically devoted to “check-in”: ensuring that each lab student has a complete set of equipment in their lab drawer with which to complete the tasks of the upcoming academic term.  This can be an overwhelming process, as students are introduced to a wide variety of items and names!  

The tools used in lab are typically used to measure volumes of liquid reagents (as with a pipette), prepare reactant mixtures (beakers, funnels, stir rods), and observe the behavior of small samples (test tubes).  More complex syntheses or purification techniques often rely on condensers and other pieces of “glassware galore.”

“Tongs; /
Bunsen burner; /
A mortar and pestle; /
Thermometer; /
Scoopula— /
All in lab drawer.”
The wide variety of items cited here in the last few lines highlight even more of the variety of goals in a lab class.  

Some of these items are related to heating and working with heated reaction mixtures (Bunsen burners and tongs, respectively, used most typically with glassware); or monitoring heat energy flow in a chemical reaction, by monitoring temperature via a thermometer.  Others are used to prepare solid reactants for use in a reaction: a scoopula can be used to obtain materials from a reagent bottle, while a mortar and pestle can be used to grind up the solid material as finely as possible.  

Several online resources include some fantastic graphics and summaries related to these materials that I often have referenced in the first week of a lab course, as students work to ensure that “all [is] in lab drawer,” preparing for the upcoming semester. 

STEM Education Poetry

Balancing Acts

“Balanced reactions are
Statements describing a 
Chemical tale;
Relevant math skills are
Termed stoichiometry.
Learn these techniques: 
On assessments, prevail!”

The 21 September 2020 poem was a pseudo-double-dactyl summarizing some common themes from introductory chemistry courses.  

“Balanced reactions are /
Equiproportional /
Statements describing a /
Chemical tale…”
As described elsewhere on this site, a balanced reaction (one in which the number of each type of element is consistent across the reaction arrow) communicates a great deal of useful information about the chemical process in question.  

Such reactions explain the relative number of moles of each chemical species; they are “equiproportional.”  To chemists, balanced reactions can be read as sentences communicating information about how reactants yield products, or, more poetically, “statements describing a chemical tale.”  

“Relevant math skills are /
Termed stoichiometry. /
Learn these techniques: / 
On assessments, prevail!”
The use of balanced reactions for quantitative applications is called stoichiometry.  Using a balanced reaction, a chemist can predict information about the mass or moles of a reactant or product of interest, given data about a different chemical species involved in the same reaction.  

As with some other poems posted here, this one is written in a teacher’s voice. The second half of the double dactyl exhorts students to learn the skills of balancing reactions and using them for stoichiometric calculations, so that they can succeed on assessments such as homework and exams! The first year of chemistry coursework provides an introduction to a range of such techniques.