STEM Education Poetry

Dramatic Technique

“Procedure today: use the crucible!  
Obtain sample’s make-up, deducible
Through tasks gravimetric 
And steps arithmetic;
Key data emerge, thus computable.”  

The 6 April 2021 limerick addressed another common laboratory technique: the use of a crucible, which can have applications both qualitative and quantitative in the chemistry lab.  

“Procedure today: use the crucible!”  

Crucibles are containers that can be heated to very high temperatures; as such, they are useful in a wide variety of chemistry settings.  In introductory chemistry, they typically inform some of the most interesting questions during lab check-in, as they aren’t as familiar and/or repetitive as some of the other materials in a lab drawer, such as flasks, beakers, or graduated cylinders.  

While the composition of crucibles can vary in industry and other settings, in the intro lab, crucibles are typically small ceramic dishes.  The main idea is that, when a crucible containing a sample of interest is heated, the sample will be affected by the heat (decomposing or otherwise reacting), while the crucible itself will be unaltered.  (In popular culture, the name is likely most familiar from Arthur Miller’s 1953 dramatic work, giving this essay its title.)  

“Obtain sample’s make-up, deducible /
Through tasks gravimetric /
And steps arithmetic; /
Key data emerge, thus computable.”  

One common use of the crucible is in a technique called gravimetric analysis.  By heating a reaction product to high temperatures in a crucible, it is possible to fully dry the product and obtain its exact mass (“tasks gravimetric”).  Through the use of that exact mass and the principles of reaction stoichiometry (“steps arithmetic”), a chemist can also determine the percent composition of a component ion, or analyte, in the pertinent starting material: “the sample’s make-up [is] deducible.”  

While this limerick emerged out of contemplating some rhymes (one more accurate than the other!) for “crucible,” it was a fun challenge to align the poem structure with a reasonable summary of the experiment. 

STEM Education Poetry

On All Cylinders

With cylinder’s use (graduated),
A volume can be calculated…
Keep eye on meniscus;
Report results; discuss
The findings from lab extricated.

This Twitter limerick was posted on 5 April 2021.  It (and, indeed, the next few as well) will pose some interesting challenges!  During this “week” of poems from April 2021, my goal was to take introductory chemistry lab routines and summarize them poetically. While it was fun to turn those everyday tasks into some brief, lyrical descriptions, I am less confident in my ability to expand on them here!  However, as I saw with this post, I still have much to learn regarding background information and etymology for even the most typical of lab routines.  

“With cylinder’s use (graduated), /
A volume can be calculated…”

A graduated cylinder is a common tool in an introductory chemistry student’s lab drawer. As the name suggests, this piece of glassware is cylindrical in shape, and the “graduations” marked on it are indicators of the volumes that can easily be measured with that specific cylinder.  Typically, a student’s lab drawer will contain several of these cylinders, spanning a range of possible volumes to be measured.

“Keep eye on meniscus; /
Report results; discuss /
The findings from lab extricated.”

These last three lines sum up the purpose of using a graduated cylinder: measuring a given volume. To do this, a student carefully examines the reading in a graduated cylinder, looking for where the meniscus, the curve created by the liquid in the cylinder, hits the pertinent line on the side of the cylinder.  

(It is always intriguing in writing even these brief essays to come back to the etymologies of some of these terms.  Meniscus is from the Greek for “crescent,” the descriptiveness of which word presumably accounts for its varied presence in multiple disciplinary settings.)

This poem grew out of some idle pondering of a rhyme for an unusual chemistry term, as many of these do.  To make “discuss” plausible as a rhyme for the final two syllables of “meniscus,” this poem describes a common goal in a lab setting. In reporting on the volume measured for a given liquid, a student would “discuss / [t]he findings from lab extricated”: the data they obtained in lab by using their graduated cylinder to complete the week’s procedure.

STEM Education Poetry

Geometry Proofs

3-D geometry:
V S E P R, the
Theory confusing can
Seem when first faced;
So many vocab terms,
Summed up: electron pairs
Want their own space.” 

The 2 April 2021 Twitter poem approaches the form of a double dactyl.  It introduces a common theory used in introductory chemistry coursework: valence-shell electron-pair repulsion theory, or VSEPR Theory.       

“3-D geometry: /
V S E P R…”

One major theme of a first-year chemistry course is molecular geometry: the shape a molecule takes.  One explanation for this shape is VSEPR Theory; the acronym stands for “valence-shell electron-pair repulsion.”  For this poem’s meter, the letters are pronounced individually; it’s common for a chemistry instructor to alternate between stating the letters and saying the word “vesper.”      

“…the /
Theory confusing can /
Seem when first faced; /
So many vocab terms, /

Learning VSEPR Theory can be challenging on multiple fronts.  Not only is the general idea of a molecule’s having a three-dimensional geometry often new to students, depending on what they’ve seen in previous courses, but the specific vocabulary with which VSEPR geometries are described is extensive.  Terms like “see-saw,” “linear,” “T-shaped,” and “bent” (and many others) all have particular denotations in VSEPR theory; further, many overlap with words that already have everyday meanings for students.  (I used “matter-of-factual” in the single-word line here, since chemistry is generally described as the study of matter.)  

“Summed up: electron pairs /
Want their own space.” 

The last two lines here translate VSEPR into everyday language.  Valence electrons are the outermost electrons for a given element, contrasted with the core electrons.  When elements combine to form molecules, these electrons (ultimately present in a molecule as covalent bonds or lone pairs) will repel one another, meaning that the geometry that the resultant molecule adopts will be the one that maximizes distance between these electron pairs, which “want their own space.”  While this phrasing is far less precise than the subsequent vocabulary we will use, deliberately demystifying the acronym is a useful first step in class.     

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!