Categories
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,
Matter-of-factual.
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, /
Matter-of-factual.”

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.     

Categories
Science Poetry

Third in a Series

Past few months have been chaos kinetic;
Mind’s been far from rhymed verse academic.
But: still worth a try, so
Bring on NaPoWriMo,
Third attempt toward an April poetic.

Here at the start of both a new calendar year and a new spring semester, I’ll begin revisiting the April 2021 National Poetry Writing Month poems, previously posted on Twitter.  Not all of these were science-themed, but enough were that I should be able to repeat this pattern throughout the spring.  This Twitter limerick, from 1 April 2021, merely introduces the month’s goal; it still might be useful in setting the scene for the next several weeks.    

“Past few months have been chaos kinetic; / 
Mind’s been far from rhymed verse academic.”

I wrote this limerick in the waning weeks of the 2020-21 academic year.  I was reflecting on the stress of managing day-to-day work in such an unusual time, where “chaos kinetic” was still predominating.  I had paused my Twitter poems (“rhymed verse academic”) since the end of the Fall 2020 semester.  

“But: still worth a try, so /
Bring on NaPoWriMo, /
Third attempt toward an April poetic.” 
 

As in April 2020, I contemplated in April 2021 the feasibility of persisting in the daily writing trend that National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) encourages.  Thirty poems in thirty days seemed even more daunting than in the previous year.  Following successful endeavors in 2019 and 2020, the “third attempt” ultimately seemed “worth a try.”  

Part of my motivation in doing so was the possibility of generating thematic material for these subsequent essays, as that two-step process (poem first, then interpretive essay) has provided a helpful writing routine over the past two years. 

I find the poetic form of the interlocking rubaiyat particularly resonant: how the structure and word choice in one stanza informs that of the next (AABA, BBCB, CCDC, etc.).  In a similar way, by writing thirty poems in April, I can ensure that I have several themes for the following year’s blog posts, since the topics I chose for the poems inform the substance of the longer essays.  [I also note some parallels here with the structure of the Periodic Table of Elements: each essay is in the same “family” (theme) as its prompting verse and is itself a higher “number”… in terms of word count!]   

Categories
Science Poetry

Time of Flight

I’m flying a kite on the shore of the lake
In the summer before I turn ten.
The weak string grows taut and eventually snaps,
And the kite sails away overhead.   

Though I haven’t let go in the technical sense,
Still my aim plays no longer a role;
Story’s end is the same whether fate takes command
Or the kite’s wind-blown path I control.   

In the decades that pass since that warm summer day,
Expectations will rarely align
With reality; little makes narrative sense
To extent I’ve envisioned in mind.  

Recalling today that long-past afternoon—
Freed kite framed against vivid blue sky—
Though I mourned in that moment the loss of my toy,
I’ll remember now letting it fly.  

As winter break quickly passes by, I will take a few minutes today to write a brief post, to note the disappearing month and year.  This non-Twitter poem was one I wrote in a creative writing course a few years ago, for which the pertinent day’s prompt was considering the act of “letting go.” 

I’m flying a kite on the shore of the lake /
In the summer before I turn ten. /
The weak string grows taut and eventually snaps, /
And the kite sails away overhead.   

Though written in meter, this initial depiction is relatively prosaic.  I still remember standing by the side of a lake in a state park, many years ago: watching, befuddled, as a colorful diamond soared far into the distance.    

Though I haven’t let go in the technical sense, /
Still my aim plays no longer a role; /
Story’s end is the same whether fate takes command /
Or the kite’s wind-blown path I control.   

This stanza veers the closest of any here to a chemistry theme, lining up with the discussion of state functions and path functions I’ve mentioned before.  Mathematically, state functions and path functions are approached differently; a state function simplifies much accompanying math because it can be defined by taking the final state minus the initial state.  To use my perennial example of a mountain climber’s odyssey, the altitude achieved in the climb is a state function, since it can be calculated simply by taking the final height reached minus the initial height at ground level; the distance traveled is a path function, since it requires information about the specific route to determine.     

Here, “story’s end”– the altitude of the lost kite; its final state– would have been the same whether the string broke or I let go of it: “whether fate takes command / or the kite’s wind-blown path I control.” 

(I wrote a potential addition to this portion at one point, making the point gratingly clear as a chemistry lesson: “Now the altitude reached by the diamond afloat / Is a state function, neatly defined: / Final height of the kite is the same in both versions / Of story I’ve held in my mind.” I ultimately preferred the simpler phrasing.)

In the decades that pass since that warm summer day, /
Expectations will rarely align /
With reality; little makes narrative sense /
To extent I’ve envisioned in mind.  

These lines extend the mathematical metaphor to the idea of life as a path function that I’ve written about previously.  The path is unexpected and often challenging: expectation and reality can differ sharply; many events can seem bewildering, at best, when experienced in real time. While to look only at the initial and final states is to miss the entire story, the intervening path still might not make a great deal of “narrative sense,” as one walks it.

Recalling today that long-past afternoon— /
Freed kite framed against vivid blue sky— /
Though I mourned in that moment the loss of my toy, /
I’ll remember now letting it fly.  

However, the act of writing about challenges can sometimes reframe and reclaim them, as related in this small-scale example. 

On that day, years ago, I was disappointed to lose my kite. In writing this poem, I “remember[ed]… letting it fly,” a phrase which can refer either to an intentional release of the kite string (as referenced above) or, more generally, to the experience of kite-flying on the day itself.  The former didn’t happen, but through the writing process, I found the latter to be increasingly true.  When I looked back, I could envision the details vividly; I’m not sure I would have been able to, had the string not broken and the kite not departed so notably.

Several interesting tensions exist between this careful reassessment of memory and the “letting go” of the prompt that first inspired the verse.  That’s a balancing act fleetingly noted in the poem’s last few lines– and one that would be useful to revisit in a future essay!

Categories
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!   

Categories
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.    

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Floating Ideas

Gaseous chapter frames
Axiomatic’ly
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. 

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Reporting Back

“Writing a lab report!
Challenging hurdle in
Finishing weekly work:
Goals, findings linked. 
Provide the record most
Quantificational;
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 /
Quantificational…”

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.  

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Noting It Well

“Keeping a notebook:
Lab bibliotherapy;
Data, procedure in
Tome here are stored.
Calcs and reagents and
Instrumentation: 
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. 

Categories
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?    

Categories
Science Poetry

Annual Appreciation

“Practical, rational
Findings: week celebrates,
Spotlighting chem work of 
National fame…
Lab-analyzingly,
Goal-synthesizingly: 
Highlight stick-to-it-ive 
Process and aims!”

The 19 October 2020 Twitter poem marked the start of National Chemistry Week 2020.

“Practical, rational /
Findings: week celebrates, /
Spotlighting chem work of /
National fame…”

The first four lines noted the general themes of National Chemistry Week, which celebrates chemistry research across the USA.  The American Chemical Society sponsors related events and campaigns, throughout late October.  Each year involves a different theme highlighting a different aspect of the discipline of chemistry.    

Lab-analyzingly, /
Goal-synthesizingly: /
Highlight stick-to-it-ive /
Process and aims!”

The second four lines of this poem were focused on the 2020 theme for National Chemistry Week, “Sticking with Chemistry,” examining the science behind adhesives.  

Two hyphenated double-dactyl words, “lab-analyzingly” and “goal-synthesizingly,” summarized some of the main ways in which chemists complete their work.  Several types of analysis can be completed on compounds to understand their elemental composition and overall properties.  New chemical species can be synthesized in the lab, putting elements into new combinations. 

The “stick-to-it-ive” phrasing emphasized both adhesives as the subject of the 2020 celebration, specifically, and the determination with which scientists approach their goals, generally!  

This year’s week began on Monday and, for 2021, celebrates a theme related to ideas of chemical kinetics and reaction rates: “Fast or Slow, Chemistry Makes it Go.”  A new round of Twitter poems is thus in progress… which I’ll return to next year, in this space.