STEM Education Poetry

Impostor Syndrome

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster
With material dense, across roster.
Here, a theme that’s implicit,
Rhyme attempts to elicit:
Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.  

This non-Twitter poem describes another phenomenon that I remember encountering in my own chemistry coursework; another one that I could name only years later.  As with other poems I’ve written, my hope is that some deliberate discussion of such topics may be useful to students.

Wide confusion, a chem class can foster /
With material dense, across roster.  
Chemistry courses are particularly demanding because they involve densely complex concepts described by densely complex language. Chemistry professor Henry A. Bent has characterized this overlap as “strange terms for strange things,” echoing Lucretius’s description of scientific translation from millennia earlier: “find[ing] strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing.”   Further, General Chemistry enrolls students from many majors.  Finally, the course moves at a fast pace, to cover all the technical content expected in this widely-used prerequisite.  The combination can be confusing for many students in the course, “across [the] roster.” 

Here, a theme that’s implicit, / Rhyme attempts to elicit
As with my other STEM-education-categorized poems, this limerick emphasizes an underlying theme not officially explored in most chemistry textbooks or curricula.      

Most of us sometimes feel like impostors.
It is common in chemistry coursework to feel the pressure of impostor syndrome: an insidious belief that one has only succeeded thus far due to fraud.  That is, if someone earned high grades in all previous classes and suddenly finds a course unexpectedly difficult, it is a common response for them to believe that this is because they have been able to fool people all the way along until now.  This isn’t true.  College science courses are uniquely challenging and require different study techniques: moreover, these overarching structural obstacles are rarely visible, a compounding factor that persists through academia and the working world.  

When facing a new job or task in my own life, I often think of Bill Watterson’s wonderful comic Calvin and Hobbes: this storyline in particular, in which Calvin navigates his first baseball game without actually having been taught the rules.  At one point, he notices that the batting and fielding teams are changing places but, without an understanding of his responsibilities, he doesn’t move from his own place in the outfield.  A few panels later, he accidentally catches a fly ball from one of the batters on his own team.  Ultimately, facing widespread criticism, he leaves the team, and his terrible coach calls him a quitter.  Calvin’s misguidedly optimistic line from early on– “Well, I’m sure someone would tell me if I was supposed to be doing anything different”– comes to mind often in new situations, where the biggest pictures are often the least acknowledged.

In my own experience, impostor syndrome doesn’t ever go completely away: hence my shift to the first-person voice in the poem’s last line.  However, being able to name it is helpful, as is the knowledge that it can afflict almost everyone at times; I would offer that information to any students I teach.       

STEM Education Poetry

Mind Over Matter

Some lenses toward learning incline, yet
Their models aren’t in textbooks typeset: 
E. g., efforts renewed
Help us work to improve
Through the benefits of a growth mindset!  

This new (non-Twitter) poem presents another concept that is discussed widely in educational and psychological literature but not in chemistry textbooks directly, at least to my knowledge.  This limerick attempts to succinctly introduce Carol Dweck’s fascinating work on growth and fixed mindsets.  A growth mindset can be a powerful approach in any challenging situation…including a General Chemistry class!    

Some lenses towards learning incline, yet /
Their models aren’t in textbooks typeset.
The first two lines address the same idea discussed above: many techniques that could prove useful in mastering difficult material (the “lenses [that] towards learning incline”)  are not traditionally introduced in disciplinary references themselves: that is, they “aren’t in textbooks typeset.”  The chemistry textbooks that I personally have used, while excellent repositories of much information, have not included as much direct support for the processes of learning.  (Textbooks include a wealth of supporting information, both in marginalia and online, and thus do address such topics indirectly.  However, in my experience, most students do not notice this complementary information without a deliberate focus on study techniques in class, given the sheer volume of material covered and the algorithmic nature of most course assessments.)   

E.g., efforts renewed / Help us work to improve / 
Through the benefits of a growth mindset!  
The remaining lines summarize the concept of a growth mindset, an example of such a lens.  Carol Dweck, in her 2007 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, contrasts fixed mindsets with growth mindsets.  The former treats knowledge and creativity as fixed: someone has them or they don’t; someone can understand chemistry or they can’t.  The latter, by contrast, presents both knowledge and creativity as works in progress: challenging chemistry material is an opportunity for someone to learn more and develop further, by “work[ing] to improve.”  While few students enrolled in General Chemistry are chemistry majors, the need to learn challenging material arises in all curricula, and every student can benefit from developing a mindset that facilitates resilience, builds on constructive criticism, and rewards continued effort

STEM Education Poetry


Gradually, factually,
Thinking re: thinking; 
These techniques provided
Prove useful routines.  
Learn how to learn: goal of
Metacognition; the
Framework resolved
That remains to be seen.

Back to the modified double dactyl structure for another non-Twitter poem: as I mentioned at the start of July, my plan for the next few months is to alternate my Twitter translations with chemistry-education-focused poems.  I would like to add an intentional focus on metacognition into this year’s General Chemistry coursework, and the first step is to define it, in that classroom space.  

Gradually, factually, / Thinking re: thinking; /
These techniques provided / Prove useful routines.  
After COVID-19 caused colleges to shift instruction online in Spring 2020, several social media groups and email lists compiled pedagogical resources.  In one such conversation, I was reminded of a wonderful book I had encountered in 2017: Teach Students How to Learn, written by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire.  As was the case with “Cubes, Eights, and Dots,” I wish I would have had this book as a student.  The authors clearly explain why learning science at the college level can be challenging; they also introduce several concrete strategies that students can implement immediately.  I have been revisiting their work in preparation for autumn.

Learn how to learn: goal of / Metacognition…
When I teach Gen Chem, it is always with an acknowledgement to myself that the content-area knowledge is not something that will truly last for most of the students enrolled; nor is it something that needs to. Many students are required to take the coursework, but for most, it is primarily content preparation for pre-professional exams, rather than the start of a lifelong endeavor.  An intentional emphasis on learning how to learn would be a welcome addition to the course, since such skills would be transferable into any future curricula and/or career paths!  

…The / Framework resolved / That remains to be seen.  
The poem’s close restates the iterative nature of learning, first highlighted in the “thinking re: thinking” phrasing above (which could easily be heard as “thinking; rethinking”).  A subject’s underlying framework– the bigger picture– is somewhat “resolved” via metacognition.  More accurately, though, that bigger picture is a puzzle that can be “re-solved” multiple times: acknowledging a learner’s expanding perspective each time in doing so, with more insights ever “remain[ing] to be seen.” 

STEM Education Poetry

Syllabus Statements

In “Science 1,” our textbooks preach set rules
Established: puzzle pieces that will rest
Quite neatly in their promised outlines.  Schools
Rely on goals predictable to test.  
But what of science practiced?  Whence the books?  
We’ll deem that something else: the effort new
That seeks horizons far and challenge brooks.  
(For purpose here, let’s call it “Science 2.”)
I rarely note this conflict as I teach–  
Since content’s great and time allotted, small–   
And hope that one who will, in future, reach 
Beyond this course can knowledge overhaul.
I’ll state here bluntly: both have “Science” name, 
But Versions 1 and 2 are not the same.

I have been reading and listening a great deal in response to the nationwide rallies against racial injustice that have been taking place this summer.  Discussions such as #ShutDownSTEM have highlighted systemic obstacles that Black scholars and students face in academia.   Additionally, research published this summer has emphasized the significant barriers that General Chemistry can create for STEM students, especially Black students and other underrepresented students.  

As a white faculty member, I want to work toward an actively anti-racist learning environment in whatever ways I can.   In resuming my regular posts in this space, in addition to my typical translations of chemistry poetry, I would like to be more deliberate about discussing the challenges of General Chemistry coursework.  Thus, this sonnet is not one I’ve previously posted on Twitter.  Rather than illustrating a specific chemistry concept, it addresses a phrasing that I discovered in the literature early in my teaching career and wished sincerely that I had learned as a student.  I still found it helpful to build my discussion over a poem’s framework.  

In “Science 1,” our textbooks preach set rules /
Established– puzzle pieces that will rest /
Quite neatly in their promised outlines.  Schools /
Rely on goals predictable to test. /
But what of science practiced?  Whence the books? / 
We’ll deem that something else: the effort new /
That seeks horizons far and challenge brooks. / 
(For purpose here, let’s call it “Science 2.”) 
“Science 1” and “Science 2” are defined in an essay entitled “Cubes, Eights, and Dots,” by Robert Kooser and Lance Factor (referenced in an excellent Journal of Chemical Education article that I was fortunate to encounter a few years ago).  The authors blend historical and philosophical perspectives on chemistry “to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is not a cast-iron set of facts, but rather a fluid body of information shaped by the people who use it for specific purposes.”  They describe the development of the octet rule, a guiding principle in drawing Lewis dot structures, which are in turn useful representational tools for chemical compounds.  Notably, their essay tells the story of the rule’s development, rather than its application.  The authors quote physics professor and science historian Gerald Horton, who defines the terms borrowed in today’s poem: 

Science as it appears in textbooks [Science I] and science as it is practiced by researchers into the unknown [Science II] are two different things… Since most of us will never do Science II, we put our energies into learning Science I, but as we have seen, Science II is historically behind and underneath Science I.

Gerald Horton, quoted in “Cubes, Eights, and Dots”

In other words, textbook chemistry (Science 1) and real chemistry (Science 2) are different; this difference goes beyond simple “theory vs. practice” questions into something more fundamental. 

Another quote from the same essay addresses the fact that an awareness of these underlying stories can be challenging to consider; the authors highlight I. Bernard Cohen’s The Structure of Scientific Theories: “We do not dare to tell our students… this would impugn the alleged empirical foundation.”  (Though this is a tangent for another time, I imagine some overlap here with the debate over science “storytelling” that I’ve seen discussed in the literature.) 

What I teach in General Chemistry, with respect to the content covered in “Cubes, Eights, and Dots,” is the use of the octet rule: pure Science 1; application of an established disciplinary concept; simple evaluation via an exam question.  What is the real science– the Science 2– behind the rule?  It is the saga of the stops and starts necessary to devise this useful heuristic for describing chemical compounds: the discussions between Lewis and Langmuir; the refinement of the octet rule and Lewis structures into compelling models for other chemists; science as an investigative, clarifying process.

I rarely note this conflict as I teach– / 
Since content’s great and time allotted, small– /  
And hope that one who will, in future, reach /
Beyond this course can knowledge overhaul.
I have never accentuated this “Science 1 vs. Science 2” tension in teaching General Chemistry, which covers a great deal of disciplinary content in a limited timeframe.  Most Gen Chem students won’t take more than one or two years’ chemistry coursework, so it has seemed like they are better served by a focus on the Science-1-specific objectives that their professional programs (and, more to the point, their largely-multiple-choice qualifying exams) will require.  For chemistry majors, I hope that laboratory work, advanced classes, and independent research will illuminate the differences.  When I talk extensively about the practices and narratives of Science 2, it is either with research advisees, with whom I have far more time, or with general education STEM classes, which do not have stringent content requirements.  

However, I remember my considerable frustration as a student in my own Science-1-centric General Chemistry course, worrying that I was missing some bigger picture, even as I dutifully memorized each chapter’s numerous equations.  I wasn’t able to fully contextualize or articulate that worry at the time.  I am confident that other students, many of whom would not have the support systems that I did, have faced similar frustrations.           

I’ll state here bluntly: both have “Science” name, /
But Versions 1 and 2 are not the same.
Renowned poet and English professor Elizabeth Alexander provides a key to resolving this Science-1/Science-2 conflict, as she writes: “[S]peaking is crucial… you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”  She adds, “[E]ducation is not something you passively consume.”  Read in a chemistry context, her words can inspire the reader to learn the concepts of Science 1 by acknowledging that they, as new learners, are contributing to the narratives of Science 2.    
I’ve written in this space on the challenging balance between learning disciplinary vocabulary and employing that vocabulary in one’s own research and creative work.  I’d like to be more intentional, though, moving forward in my professional work: highlighting in my syllabi the existence of the “two sciences” and explaining the challenges their tension creates; quoting Alexander’s essay and encouraging students to explore Science-2-centered narratives (and to consider their own), even as we learn the Science-1 vocabulary and concepts with which to fully describe and understand these narratives.  Although directly acknowledging this complexity is a small step, it is my hope that it will be an initial, constructive one towards a more equitable classroom.