Science is Poetry is Science

“An enzyme’s active site is empty.
It floats there all alone,
Waiting to catalyze
A biological reaction unknown.

A substrate, also lonely,
Searches for a friend.
An enzyme to work together with
Who will help reactions begin and end…”

It’s National Poetry Month, and English teachers and librarians are celebrating all over the country. But what about everyone else? Is it true what kids say– poetry only belongs in English class? The biology teacher and I set out to prove them wrong. Looking for a way to add to her enzyme unit instruction, we collaborated, which included her  teaching me some biology and then assigning me homework, and me going over different forms and kinds of poetry, and then planned out the writing of persona poems. We wanted to ensure that this was not just a fun, “cool” activity, but rather a formative assessment tool that would point to any confusion or misconceptions her students might have.

Prior to the activity, the students were asked to sticky-note the important vocabulary from the unit in their text book. Which words are critical to the understanding of enzymes? When I came into class, I showed them Louise Gluck’s Red Poppies. We discussed the tone and the voice of the poem–how the poppy worshipped her god to the point of sacrifice. So what about enzymes? If we personified enzymes, what would they be like? Resentful for the work they selflessly undertake? Joyous and compassionate about the importance of their services? Adopt a persona I told them Decide who your enzyme (or inhibitor or substrate) is, and then start telling their story.

As expected, some kids’ eyes lit right up and they delved in. Others looked at us questioningly. You could read their faces: Poetry in science class? Are you for real? But after some quiet conversations and brainstorming, their pencils starting scratching the paper, too. Textbooks were open. Sticky notes were read and rewritten. The science teacher and I moved around the room–she answered questions about the content; I answered questions about the process.

And in the end, they proved what I had been suspecting for some time, and which, in hindsight seems like a well, duh kind of revelation: you cannot write poetry about something you don’t know. You have to know what hydrolyzing and catalyzing means to successfully use those words. You have to know the difference between a competitive and a noncompetitive inhibitor. You have to know how substrates work and what their purpose is.

Poetry is like the zoom lens of writing, and through its view you can see the pores and tiny hairs of whatever you are looking at. To write stunning poetry, you have to understand your subject and humanity all at once, while being able to pick apart everything you see. It’s dissection, it’s a microscope. It’s close observation. It is, in fact, a science.  What scientists are expected to do–that process of prediction, close observation, risk-taking, and drawing conclusions? That’s everything that goes into writing a good poem, as well.

So I dare you–shun the strict adherence to the kinds of writing we “should” do in each of our classes. Because once we do that, we will recognize that there is a place for all kinds of writing in every subject. And it will not only expose our students to a variety of writing and the importance of voice, but it will help with assessments, creativity, meeting the needs of all students, and strengthening the understanding of our content.

And besides: when was the last time you read something as enjoyable as this in your class?

“My active site is empty,
I’m inactive, waiting for a mate.
But a gorgeous, petite substrate attaches…
Oh my, life is great.

She distorts my molecular bonds
And her love for me is sweet like sucrose.
Yet she exhausts and weakens me with her love
Because I received it in a high dose.

So I gave her my energy,
I gave her my affection
Now she’s hydrolyzing before my eyes.
What were her intentions?

She used me, abused me,
and left me as a fool.
But together we created glucose and fructose.
What perfect little jewels!”

STEM & the Library

confirmation bias

It is very common for History and English teachers to arrive at the library doorstep looking to collaborate, but a little less likely for Science and Math teachers. As a curriculum and literacy nerd, I am always looking for the intersection of STEM subjects and research, because I believe fervently that literacy across the curriculum improves student learning.

So when my 7th grade teacher and I had the opportunity to join an ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education) initiative that paired STEM teachers with library resources, we jumped. The goal was to create a research-based project that used Open Educational Resources. Together, we designed a unit that immersed students in the study of confirmation bias.

To understand confirmation bias, one has to acknowledge that we all have biases, something most people do not want to admit. But confirmation bias is a little more complex–in confirmation bias, we glean information, read and interpret data, dismiss statistics, or just push a little to make thing say what we want. This is obviously a troublesome practice in science.

We started the unit by having students read two articles: one saying climate change is real; the other saying it wasn’t, both using data to prove their points. We then did a close reading activity where students pulled and broke down the data, assessing its credibility. They drew conclusions that the points made in the “Climate Change Is Not Real” article either did not have data to support it or pulled small pieces of data from long term collections, making it unreliable. They quickly realized–this is what bias looks like.

The following day, students moved around to different stations, reading case studies, looking at cartoons, and taking part in small experiments to solidify their understanding of why and how confirmation bias exists. By the end of that class, they were ready to apply their knowledge.

Students then spent time on looking for science issues that were relevant to their lives or that they were interested in. Topics like–Are vaccinations safe? Should animals be used for experimentation? Is vegetarianism a preferred diet? Should we use alternative energy? Are cell phones safe? They took a stance and found data that supports their stance. But then they had to pull data that supported the other side. From this point on, they were in an internal struggle–which data was the correctly-used data?

In the end, students drew cartoons or wrote paragraphs that showed how data could be used to support both arguments. Starting the year like this was powerful–they have the mindset to think like critical scientists. But what surprised us most was that they began to apply this understanding of confirmation bias to their greater world–politics, school issues, the news. We received an email from a parent saying that the subject came up over dinner and she was so grateful for their conversation and how this work has extended itself into her child’s understanding of the world.

I have never walked away from co-teaching without becoming a better teacher myself. This time was no exception. My eyes were opened to the inroads scientific thinking has to other curricula, and how relevant the material can (and should) be to students’ lives. The greatest lesson I learned was that science can spark passion, and literacy gives students the route to understand and express those passions. I never considered myself a scientist…until now.