Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Boiling Points

“Assembling set-up, distillation,
Can lead to a bit of frustration.
Be sure to securely 
Clamp glassware so surely
Experiment defies ruination!”  

The 9 April 2021 Twitter limerick highlighted distillation, a lab technique used in organic chemistry laboratories to purify liquid samples.  The poem highlights one of the ways in which such a lab technique might go awry… and encourages students to avoid it!  

“Assembling set-up, distillation, /
Can lead to a bit of frustration…” 

The first semester of organic chemistry lab introduces techniques and tools one at a time, building to increasingly complex experiments in which their uses can be combined.  One such technique is distillation: separating a liquid mixture into its component parts, based on differences in their boiling points.

A “simple distillation” is typically one wherein two components of a liquid mixture have boiling points distinct from one another.  This mixture is placed in a round-bottomed flask, which is connected to a condenser, which is connected to a receiving flask.   The mixture is heated until it reaches the boiling point of the first component; at this point, the first component vaporizes, travels as a gas into the condenser, and is condensed into the first receiving flask.  (The condenser circulates cooling water through an outer jacket: within the complex set-up of the laboratory fume hood, one condenser tube connects to a faucet and the other to a drain.)  Once this first component is separated out, a second receiving flask is used to collect the second component, as its own boiling point is reached.    

Typically, these steps are all new for students; although they will become well-practiced with the distillation set-up, assembling it can be frustrating initially.   

“Be sure to securely /
Clamp glassware so surely /
Experiment defies ruination!”  

This set-up is often one of the first to involve multiple pieces of glassware– including, most notably, the condenser. To avoid “ruination” (the watery collapse of the endeavor!), it is important to clamp the pieces of glassware together and, further, to clamp everything securely within the hood itself. 

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Layered Meanings

“Exacting; extracting… 
A sep funnel’s function:
To isolate layers and
Compound obtain.
(Avoid a moment most 
Melodramatical:
Ere product’s sure, 
From waste’s discard, 
Refrain!)”

The 8 April 2021 Twitter poem addressed another laboratory technique: using a separatory funnel, a specialized piece of glassware that allows a chemist to separate different components of a given reaction mixture (the environment in which the reaction has been taking place).  

“Exacting; extracting… /
A sep funnel’s function: /
To isolate layers and /
Compound obtain.”

Each step of an organic synthesis depends on two key parts: the reaction itself, which converts reactant to product, and the work-up, in which the product compound is isolated (identified and purified), while excess solvents and side materials are discarded.  

The separatory funnel (“sep funnel”), as its name suggests, is particularly useful in separating liquid layers from one another, based on their different densities.  Often, the layers of interest are “water” versus “non-halogenated organic solvents,” where the latter layer would be less dense than the former.  In the case of “water” versus “halogenated organic solvents,” through, the latter layer is more dense than the former.  (Chemists typically use “aqueous” and “organic” as efficient shorthand for the layers.)

Either way, depending on which layer the target product occupies, the chemist will use the sep funnel, to “compound obtain.”  

“(Avoid a moment most /
Melodramatical: /
Ere product’s sure, /
From waste’s discard, /
Refrain!)”

I suspect that anyone reading the discussion of different densities above, whether or not they are a chemist, might quickly note the most challenging hazard of using a sep funnel: being absolutely sure which layer is which (and which layer thus contains the product) before proceeding.  A best practice is to wait to discard the other layer until subsequent steps are completed, to be sure the target product hasn’t been accidentally lost: “Ere product’s sure, / From waste’s discard, / Refrain!”

When a student is learning the technique, though, this lesson can sometimes be hard-won.  This is unfortunately clear from the occasional “moment most / [m]elodramatical”… directly after the moment when someone’s synthesized product is inadvertently lost to the waste container.

Categories
STEM Education Poetry

Burning Bright

Consider lab drawer’s Bunsen burner…
Providing new role for chem learner
(Through method, flame-testing,
Steps towards metal-guessing):
Of cation’s ID, discerner.”  

The 7 April 2021 limerick summarized a qualitative analysis technique often used in introductory chemistry, which employs one of its most memorably named instruments, the Bunsen burner.  

“Consider lab drawer’s Bunsen burner… /
Providing new role for chem learner…”

Combustion can occur completely or incompletely.  Complete (stoichiometric) combustion is what is taught in the textbooks: a hydrocarbon fuel reacts with oxygen and is converted fully to carbon dioxide and water.  The path from start to finish actually occurs via a wide network of complex reactions involving radicals, which are species with unpaired electrons; these can cause all sorts of side reactions and products.  When the combustion is incomplete, these side reactions include the formation of soot.  Soot has many detrimental effects, and Robert Bunsen (1811-1899) was interested in developing a burner that could produce a particularly clean flame, avoiding these effects.  His burner has been widely adopted for use in introductory chemistry laboratories (by “chem learner[s]”).     

“(Through method, flame-testing, /
Steps towards metal-guessing): /
Of cation’s ID, discerner.”

A traditional and interesting use of the Bunsen burner is the flame test, or “method, flame-testing.”  A wire is placed into a solution made from an ionic compound, which includes a cation derived from a metal of interest.  The wire is then placed into the flame, and as the ionic solution evaporates, the flame will turn a certain color based on the emission characteristics of the metal ion in question.  For instance, copper would turn the flame a bluish-green, and potassium would turn the flame violet.  

If a student is given an unknown compound and asked to determine the cation in this compound, they could use the flame test behavior as a step towards identifying the unknown; their role as “chem learner” could then also include being “of cation’s ID, [a] discerner.”              

Categories
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. 

Categories
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.

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.