Poetry as a Tool for Science Communication
by Whitney Chandler
Funding for the arts is continuing to be reduced year after year. The importance of serving our children’s right brain has been pushed aside to afford them lessons in math and science. However, further research has many teachers advocating for STEM to evolve into STEAM, including arts in the baseline knowledge that our students should be receiving in their education.
I recently completed my master’s pro- gram at the McCall Outdoor Science School, an extension of the University of Idaho. My program focused on environmental education and science communication, during which I served as an instructor for K-12 students in an outdoor learning environment. For my capstone project, I sought out to track phenological changes from winter to spring through my students’ poetry.
Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is an invaluable gift. It can help to remind you of the magic and the details that you miss as an adult. Left to their own devices, they will explore the undersides of rocks,dig in the snow or sand, climb trees and, as a result, show you the world from a beginner’s mind. Children are enchanted by seeing a deer for the third time that day because children feel as if they are in the wild — even in a managed state park — sharing the same habitat side by side with that animal.
When you think that children are not paying attention and are distracted they will surprise you by noticing the rhythmic croaking of a frog that you yourself hadn’t noticed. One student writes:
Birds calling loudly
Frogs are croaking on the shore
Smells are fresh and clean
Kids can seem so distracted and distractible, but when asked to hone in and focus to create a poem about their present moment, there is a sudden stillness, a quietness that takes over like a morning blanketed in snow. By Emma:
We explore the snow
For the subnivean zone
Finding the critters below
Asking children to work with poetry as a means to express what they are seeing is challenging for them. Through my instruction we utilized haiku poems to observe our surroundings. It required discipline, math, and deep concentration. Each word is chosen with intention and purpose when carefully counting each syllable. A collection of haiku poems were taken from different classes of 6th graders over a four-month period. It was hypothesized that there would be a correlation between the recur- ring themes and the dominate words used in their poems with the progression of the winter season as we moved into spring.
Wordclouds can be used to visualize the frequency that certain words have in a word set by displaying the dominating words in larger font size, while those that may have only occurred once fade into the background. Words such as “and,” “the,” “is,” in addition to others are eliminated during this process. The goal of this project was to see a transition of dominate words like “ice” and “snow” to “sun” and “warmth” through the progression of the season. The incessant cold weather that is common in McCall, Idaho from January to March hindered this result.
To facilitate the poetry sessions, we first discussed that some people communicate differently than others. After practicing exercises communicating without words and then using storytelling as a means of communicating science, poetry was then introduced. They quickly grasped that, in a three line poem, you can adequately describe a place or data set that has been collected. The following is an example of describing water uptake in trees during the winter months:
Like straws, water flows
Filling the tree. Help it grow
Shuts off when it knows
There was a distinct difference between the poems collected during the winter months and those written in late April after the sun and spring had decided to return. The dominating themes and words between the months of January and March consisted of the lessons and activities that had occurred that day. For example:
Fun and exploring
Snowshoeing and hole digging
Eat off bandana
Although the hypothesized results were not realized, there is a strong shift between the colder months and when spring finally sprung in Ponderosa State Park. The poems written in late April were more tactile and focused on the connection to place:
Soft fuzzy cattails
Water moving in the breeze
Bugs flying about
However, no matter the time of year, the students wrote about the lessons they had observed that day, and the poetry sessions served as a reflection and way to digest the science they had been taught during their time at the McCall Outdoor Science School.
Rocks break in the water
Sand is tiny particles
Made of broken rocks
There seems to have been a disconnect made between art and science. They tend to be perceived as separate. However, art can be used as a way to explain science to those that think in a non-linear fashion or have an alternative style of learning. Like taught to these students, we all communicate differently. Although the poetry created by the students does not support the original hypothesis, it supports the argument that the fields of art and science are not separate. What other time would 6th grader Issac have sat down, noticed aspens in the winter light, and written:
The eyes of the aspen
Staring down their winter domain
Saving their sunlight
Whitney Chandler has a master’s in natural resources with certificates in environmental education and science communication. She writes passionately about nature and the outdoors, human connections and relationships, and nutrition.