Poetry in the Science Classroom

In school, particularly K-12, students spend a lot of their mental power categorizing themselves.  Which clique do I fit into?  Jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, popular kids, drama dorks, marching band, emos, goths, punks, skateboarders, surfers, or rappers?  AP, gifted, average, or failing?  Team Edward or Team Jacob?

One false dichotomy that was evident during my course on DNA with Duke TIP:  scientist or artist.  Of my 16 middle school students, 14 had very strong opinions that they were clearly scientists and had nothing to do with creative ventures.  The other two students were the types to dabble in a lot of different subjects, so they understood that this is not an either-or situation.

Clearly, this class, like most of the general public, does not get the chance to see the creativity that goes into science.  New technologies and novel ideas are the base materials of high-impact publications.  Interdisciplinary science is defined as taking information or techniques from one field and applying them to another.  Hence, the birth of biochemistry, molecular evolution, and bioinformatics.

Many of the long-shot, crazy-unless-it-works ideas are never published (let alone publicized) and are called negative data.  Even worse, the current tight funding situation has led to fewer innovative grants funded (see Bruce Albert’s comments).  Plus, the way science is often taught in schools makes it seem like scientists spend all their time memorizing books of known facts instead of synthesizing new knowledge and solving problems.

Back to my middle school students, their attitudes about science vs. art became so vehement that they would bad-mouth the neighboring creative writing class.  Creative writing became the slow gazelle of the entire TIP summer camp.  So the creative writing teacher and I did what good teachers do:  conspire against the students.

I gave the students a 30 minute assignment:  write poetry about DNA.  You would have thought I asked them to cut off their right hand.  I had to deal with more whining for this assignment than any other from that entire summer.  To make the assignment a little more student-friendly for students who didn’t want to worry about rhyming, I offered a perennial favorite of student poetry – the haiku (though since haiku are shorter than other poems, they had to write at least 10).  Here are some excerpts of the results:

“…And those pairs are made up of bases
That hold like the knot on your shoe laces.”

“…When they need to make copies there’s no hesitation
They begin a process called replication

The double helix is pulled apart by the helicase
This happens very fast like a race…”

“…Molecule of life
with base pair after base pair

coding my person”

“DNA is the start,
Proteins are the end,

RNA comes in the middle,
A Helicase unbends…”

DNA Haikus #8
“We are being used

Replicators control us
The fittest survive”

The Replication of DNA
“The parent making a child

Like mother & daughter strands
Then daughter becomes mother,
The cycle starts again…”


DNA by Unnamed Teaching Assistant
“It started with Watson and Crick;

Molecules muddled ball-and-stick.
Base pairs, sugars and phosphates too,
hydrogen bonds hold them together like glue.
Double helix is the shape of the strands,
complimentary like left and right hands.
The direction it takes, 5 to 3 prime,
which is how we will end this DNA rhyme.”

Untitled Haiku
“This class isn’t very easy

DNA is very, very hard

Each of these poems was reviewed by the creative writing class, who provided excellent constructive criticism in the style of the “feedback sandwich.”  Many students reported warming up to writing creatively about science.  Plus they had the chance to learn about peer review etiquette.

Does writing creatively have a place in the college classroom?  Absolutely.  If designed well, a creative assignment asks students to break away from traditional modes of assessment (quizzes, tests, calculations, labs, etc.).  Students are forced to synthesize what they know in new combinations.  For the instructor, a creative writing assignment may be more useful in assessing how well students understand the material beyond memorization.  Plus they are far more entertaining to grade.

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