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!

Science Poetry

Pause for Thought

“Thanksgiving waits on the horizon:
The moods in the classes are rising.  
It’s been a long term, so
Pause study of thermo; 
Avail selves of break energizing.”

The 25 November 2019 limerick notes some themes of thermodynamics in addition to an imminent, welcome holiday weekend. 

“Thanksgiving waits on the horizon: /
The moods in the classes are rising.”  
The 2019 poem here commemorates a typical shift in a typical semester, in which a sense of accomplishment and shift towards optimism are evident as we near the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with winter break relatively soon after. 

Fall 2020 is far from typical in terms of this term’s flow; my campus, along with many others, removed any midterm breaks or holidays, in order to finish all on-campus work by Thanksgiving.  I hope this year that, as we proceed through November, being able to see the impending holiday and the associated break “on the horizon” will still provide some mental relief to students, faculty, and staff alike, after a compressed, challenging term.  

“It’s been a long term, so /
Pause study of thermo…’ 
The chapter on thermodynamics traditionally falls near the end of the autumn semester.  Thermodynamics is often described via the shorthand “thermo”; “thermo” and “…term, so…” provided the rhyme that inspired this poem.

“Avail selves of break energizing.”
In thermodynamics, we consider a system of interest and its energetic interactions with the surroundings.  The change in energy experienced by the system depends on the heat energy transfer between the system and the surroundings and the work that is either done by the system on the surroundings or on the system by the surroundings.  (These concepts sound deceptively simple; many fascinating questions arise from the laws of thermodynamics and the related vocabulary and calculations!)  

This poem’s last line moves from the scientific context to the everyday context in terms of the word “energy,” acknowledging that the pause provided by the Thanksgiving weekend provides some welcome relief and restoration.

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.       

Science Poetry

Prefix Menu

“Brief verse (perhaps a ‘nano-rhyme’?) 
To wish success and writing time 
To those who on month’s novel path go:
Best of luck in NaNoWriMo!”

This Twitter poem was written for the start of National Novel Writing Month 2019 and posted on 1 November 2019.  It highlights the presence of “nano”– a metric prefix– in the common shorthand for the month: NaNoWriMo.     

“Brief verse (perhaps a ‘nano-rhyme’?)” 
The choice of prefix and the aim of the brief verse here aligned fortuitously; hence this essay’s title.  “Nano” is a metric prefix meaning 10-9, indicating that whatever measurement cited will be on the order of one-billionth.  It may be useful to first reference what’s likely a more familiar metric prefix, “centi,” via the centimeter: by definition, 10-2 meter, or one one-hundredth of a meter.  Likewise, a nanometer is one one-billionth of a meter; a nanosecond is one one-billionth of a second.   This brief, four-line poem was a tiny one and thus “perhaps a nano-rhyme.” Moreover, the “nano-rhyme” phrase alluded to the sound of “NaNoWriMo” in its entirety, which is what had initially inspired the poem.   

“To wish success and writing time /
To those who on month’s novel path go: /
Best of luck in NaNoWriMo!”
I am consistently impressed with the efforts of those who complete NaNoWriMo, writing a draft of a novel in thirty days; returning to writing has been immensely rewarding over the past few years, but my efforts are almost entirely brief by definition: couplets, limericks, double dactyls; these accompanying essays.  The task of writing a full-length book (“month’s novel path”) seems most daunting! 

That said, I fully appreciate the value of a consistent routine, and I have found that my day-to day work benefits from finding writing time during the evenings and weekends.  That’s particularly true in the midst of this chaotic, challenging year, and so I also wish the best of luck to those who’ve started this effort here in 2020. 

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. 

Science Poetry

Reverse Engineering

“This National Chem Week draws near its brink.
This year’s celebrations passed in a blink.  
We’ve seen metals marv’lous
(And heard some rhymes ard’ous)
In heralding species from ‘Ac to Zinc.’”

The 26 October 2019 limerick commemorated the end of National Chemistry Week 2019.  

“This National Chem Week draws near its brink. /
This year’s celebrations passed in a blink.”  
It was an interesting challenge to think of several metal-themed poems for National Chemistry Week 2019.  With a few, as with this one, the rhyme scheme was retrosynthesized from the target of a specific metal’s name in the final line: working in reverse to frame the structure of the limerick around that end goal. 

As described further below, this was a poem in which the rhymes were somewhat forced and the lines required some chemical shorthand to properly fit.  The title here thus provides both a discussion of this particular writing process and an acknowledgement that this entry, along with much of this website, could be read as “re: verse engineering”: regarding the structuring of these brief poems.

“We’ve seen metals marv’lous /
(And heard some rhymes ard’ous) /
In heralding species from ‘Ac to Zinc.’
The end of the limerick highlighted the general theme of 2019’s National Chemistry Week (“Marvelous Metals”) while acknowledging that this theme often led to language that was more awkward than elegant.  In lines three and four, “marvelous” and “arduous” relied on elision to fit into their assigned rhyme scheme.  Line five necessitated a stylistic mismatch with respect to the chemistry content, in highlighting metals as a category in their entirety: from start to finish; from stem to stern; from A to Z.  “From ‘Ac to Zinc’” was used as a metallic variation on this last phrase, using the chemical symbol for actinium and the element name of zinc, for the alphabetical start and near-finish of the metals on the periodic table.  (Zinc is more rhyme-friendly than the metal in the final alphabetical position, zirconium!)

Science Poetry

Roots of the Matter

“A prevalent metal is sodium;
Its tabled place: row three and column one.
The symbol seems mismatched;
From Latin, it’s dispatched:   
An abbreviation of natrium.”  

The 25 October 2019 limerick was the second of two to focus on a particular example of the “Marvelous Metals” generally celebrated in National Chemistry Week 2019.  This poem discussed sodium, specifically, examining its placement on the periodic table and the etymology of its name.     

“A prevalent metal is sodium; /
Its tabled place: row three and column one.”
Sodium is found in many settings on Earth.  On the Periodic Table of the Elements, sodium resides in the first column of the third row, classifying it as an alkali metal

In teaching, I have never looked up where the word alkali came from; given the etymological focus of the poem, this seems a fitting chance.  This word is derived from Arabic originally, meaning “from ashes of the ‘qaly,’ or saltwort.” Saltwort refers to any of several plants that live near saltwater; aqueous solutions of these plants’ ashes are basic. The alkali metals, likewise, react with water to form basic solutions.

“The symbol seems mismatched; /
From Latin, it’s dispatched: / 
An abbreviation of natrium.”
As seen in “Clashing Symbols,” some chemical elements’ symbols seem misaligned with their elements’ names.  Sodium’s name is derived from the Latin word natrium, which in turn refers to the Ancient Egyptian word natron, which historically referred to a salt mixture found in Egypt.  Sodium is found in many salts (ionic compounds), including sodium chloride (NaCl; table salt).   

Today, interestingly, natron is defined as a mixture of multiple compounds, each of which includes sodium.  While this likely is not dramatic enough of a change to qualify as an example of word drift (and, certainly, such a discussion quickly moves beyond my expertise!), the shift points to another challenge of learning chemistry: sifting out when detailed nuances are important to clarify and when they can be disregarded.  The dense rules of chemical nomenclature must be understood to learn General Chemistry; however, the etymologies and roots of the element names used in nomenclature rarely are explored.