Poetry and Science

Poetry and Science

Utilizing the Tools of Poetry for Science Inquiry

by Jim Martin
CLEARING consultant

pril is National Poetry Month. Can we celebrate it by using poetry to facilitate teaching science as inquiry? What does the flow of thoughts, images of relationships, grammar and syntax, in poetry have that would make it an effective element to use while engaging in the process of science inquiry? Is it possible? Let’s see.

So, what would it look like, engaging a science inquiry in a natural place with the tools of poetry? Might be interesting; might be a flop, depending on my own interest, familiarity, and confidence in science and in poetry. A natural concern, yes, but I do know that my students would become invested in their work when I decided to spring something unexpected on them. How would I go about this now?

One thing I’ve learned from looking for curricula outside my classroom, even in school parking lots, is that curricula of all kinds are actually there, embedded in the world. If you think about it, school is learning about the world outside the classroom. We just insulate our classrooms from the world, then teach about the world from within them. It takes dedicated work to make our curricula connect with the world it teaches about. The arts and humanities do open the mind to clear thinking and good work. We might consider using them more often to make those connections.

Which gets us back to poetry. We are human, all of us; we use the arts and humanities to communicate. Not just writers, artists, musicians, and actors, but suits running a powerpoint for other suits at a table, or a man with a cardboard sign saying, “stranded, anything helps.” Without that grounding, we might stumble through life; and, on a larger scale, lose sight of our on-going move toward a global civilization. We need the arts and humanities as much as we need science and technology.


Does poetry really relate to scientific inquiry in riparian areas?

How do I tell this need for the arts and humanities to a streambank? We can combine the streambank and the arts and humanities as we teach; the place and the tools. My own experience tells me that doing science with the assistance of the arts and humanities does work, does engage students in their studies, and does empower them as persons. When students draw what they observe on-site or at a lab bench, and condense each drawing to a word or phrase, use these to build an illustrated poem, write a story, or draw an accurate “photo” point then return in another season to re-draw and analyze it, they easily attain new concepts, and develop conceptual memories that remain with them. These memories tie the work to a personalized picture in their mind; the laying down of a conceptual memory. It is those kinetic, verbal, and visual records of what they experience which help build the strong conceptual memories that they will carry into their lives as something understood; just ‘common sense’.

Poetry, coupled with a drawing, can do this. Here’s a simple example of using the arts and humanities to help clarify conceptions in a stream study. Students are studying a section of a side-channel of the stream, comparing it with the main channel. You have them start the project by observing a reach they choose along the stream. As they decide on their particular reach, they get to know it by observing things there that they think might play a role in maintaining the main and side channels as habitat. This helps them begin to develop an incipient concept of a riparian area as an integrated organization of collaborating entities.

As they work, you ask them to express what they have observed with an incipient poem about the things, themselves, and their place in the stream; how they think that these things help maintain the work of the stream, and the life it supports. This poem is a work in progress, so they’ll add elements to it as they encounter them; updating it as they discover and understand more. Once they are engaged, you ask them to draw a birds-eye-view map of their reach, from stream bank to stream bank. When this is done, you ask them to use their observations, work, and poem to date, to build a section at the end of their poem that ties the parts of the map together within a conceptual framework to express the life of this stream.


They, not you, pull the work they’ve done on-site, and express it as a conceptual schematum

When their work is done, you bundle up and return to the classroom to begin to pull meaning from the evidence and thoughts they have engaged. And, to present each group’s findings and products to the class. The final presentation begins with a seminar report from each group on their work, results, interpretations, and recommendations. This presentation will utilize students’ data, insights, map, and poem, in a way that works best for them. They may wish to keep the map projected on a screen for their entire presentation, with verses of their poem interspersed to the place where they will fit best, or make the most sense. Some groups may wish to include an artful representation of their map. Others may wish to complete their presentation with a performance of their poem. Others may do the same, but with their map, data, etc., included in the performance in spots where they work well. Your job will be to comment on what each presentation brings to the goals and outcomes you had planned to achieve. The first time through, this is an interesting experience, sometimes with a challenge or two. A perfect learning experience for any teacher! Take notes, and incipient preparations for the next time you do this.

By this time, your students should have reached a place where they own their work, and know it intimately enough to begin to intuitively make decisions about it on their own. After the presentations are completed, each group hangs or posts their map and poem in the classroom. The class can then discuss the information in their posted maps and poems, and in their data and analysis sheets, to come to some consensus about connections among the elements of the stream, its environment, and its channels.

Then, they discuss and comment upon a question posed at the beginning of this article: “Can we celebrate our work in the field and lab by using poetry to facilitate teaching science as inquiry? What does the flow of thoughts, images of relationships, grammar and syntax, in poetry have that would make it an effective element to use while engaging in the process of science inquiry?” They’ll be ready to provide specific examples to support their thinking about this. As they share their thoughts, observe carefully for evidence that they have assumed ownership of the work, involvement and investment in their shared learnings, and personal empowerment. When you see evidence of this, ask some questions about it. How did they feel? When did they know they were on a profitable trail? What most helped them get to where they are? And, what part did the poem play in their inquiry? Was it effective in helping you think about the work, relationships around the components of the system?


Something for you to do:

If you did try this in some form or another, and it worked somewhat, but needed tweaking or major surgery, write a blog about your experience and post it to clearingmagazine.org. Or, post it as a comment here, just below the end of this blog, and I’ll get back to you.



jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Marine/Aquatic Education: Nudibranch Population Dynamics

Marine/Aquatic Education: Nudibranch Population Dynamics

The search for sea slugs

Linking non-divers to the excitement of ocean discovery

by Elise Pletcher
Citizen Science and Volunteer Coordinator
The Marine Science and Technology Center
Highline College

The Dendronotus iris, a species of nudibranch recently found in one of the MaST Aquarium tanks.

he Nudibranch Team is a citizen science volunteer program at the Marine Science and Technology Center of Highline College. Volunteers work with Aquarium Staff to record populations of nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs). The MaST Center’s 3,000-gallon aquarium is operated on a “flow-through” model where 250 gallons of unfiltered Puget Sound water is pumped every minute through the tanks. This water brings with it several kinds of plankton, which are hard to identify and collect in the open waters of the Puget Sound, but within our tanks can be identified at the species level. Even once they are past their planktonic larval stage, many of the nudibranchs found in our aquarium are less than 1 cm in length!

This system offers the unique opportunity to record abundance of several nudibranch species throughout the year. Citizen scientists on our nudibranch team are trained to identify upwards of twenty nudibranch species, and use flashlights to track them down in our tanks. Why nudibranchs you may ask? They make an excellent species to study because each species is very distinct morphologically. Nudibranchs are the subject of a lot of macrophotography here in the Puget Sound; their bright colors and patterns make them a photogenic group of animals. Many of the animals in our aquarium are collected, but the nudibranchs come in naturally. When we see a nudibranch, it is exciting, because we get to discover them in the tanks! The thrill of not knowing what you are going to see is also a key part of what makes diving so exciting. The Nudibranch Team provides this thrill to non-divers.

The MaST’s Nudibranch Team hosts a diverse crowd with a wide range of abilities. Some are divers who already have a passion for filming nudibranchs, while others are just learning about these sea slugs for the first time. Our team is made up of mother-child duos, music teachers, retirees, and recent college graduates, all with one thing in common: their obsession with these peculiar sea slugs. You don’t need a SCUBA certification to get involved, just an interest in peering into a tank with a flashlight for an hour or two a week. Volunteers start with a 1.5 hour training in which they learn all about nudibranchs and how to identify them, including morphological traits. After the training, they’re given an identification guide, a data collection sheet, and set loose. Of all the MaST’s volunteer programs the Nudibranch Team demands the least amount of training time, it’s what helps make it so efficient.

The program originally started in 2013 when former Education Coordinator Eugene Disney and Manager Rus Higley started noticing certain nudibranchs were in the tanks in greater numbers depending on the time of year. They decided to round up a couple of volunteers to help count nudibranchs. Fast forward five years, and we are starting to see some interesting trends in nudibranch abundance emerge. Certain species are peaking in abundance at certain times of the year.

Of our most common species, each has a distinguished peak in annual abundance. Some tend to have high abundance throughout the year, but dip in the summer. While others peak in the summer months. This is interesting because nudibranchs are indicators of ocean health. If we see a huge spike in populations, something in ecosystem is likely influencing this spike. Since they occur naturally in our aquarium, we can use their abundance as a proxy for nudibranch abundance in the water at Redondo Beach. With the MaST’s four complete years’ of nudibranch population data, we have a strong baseline for tracking population changes. Nudibranch population changes can provide insight into the population health of their food sources: hydroids, sponges, and bryozoans.

We have shared this unique citizen science program at the Western Society of Naturalists Conference in 2017, Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference 2018, and the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators Conference this summer! Are you attending the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators Conference this summer? Check out our poster Tracking Temporal and Seasonal Changes in Nudibranch Populations from a Small Aquarium presented by the wonderful Vanessa Hunt, an Associate Professor at Central Washington University.

In the next few months, we hope to design a better classification system based on volunteer experience and expertise. This includes updating our identification keys to address species color variation. The ultimate goal for this program is to publish the data, and make it available for public use by others who wish to study invertebrate population trends in the South Puget Sound.

While the MaST is excited to have some quantitative data behind our sea slug populations, the best part of the team is still sharing in the excitement of discovering a new nudibranch –just recently, we found a Dendronotus iris, a beautifully branched nudibranch, mostly white and flecked with orange and purplish-brown. Staff and volunteers flocked to the aquarium to get a closer look at this nudibranch. It has been over a year and a half since the last time this species was spotted in one of our tanks!

The Marine Science and Technology Center is the marine laboratory of Highline College. Committed to increasing ocean literacy through community interaction, personal relations and exploration; the MaST strives to accomplish this through volunteer programs, formal college classes, and k-12 school programs.


Author: Elise Pletcher is the Citizen Science and Volunteer Coordinator at the MaST Center in Des Moines WA, where she works alongside volunteers on the Jelly, Nudibranch, Marine Mammal, and Discovery Day volunteer teams.

Poetry and Science

Blog: Science, Art, and English Education

What is the Place of Science in Art and English Education?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor

chool districts have, over the past four decades, reduced their arts offerings in order to meet increased demands for time devoted to science, mathematics, social studies, and English language arts. As a consequence, time devoted to the Arts has diminished to the point that people and organizations in the community have volunteered to deliver arts-centered projects and programs in the schools. I’m one of those; I have been volunteering in the Poets in the Schools program where I live in Clark County, WA. with a second grade teacher for two years.

After my first year in the poetry program, I experienced first-hand how the support teachers receive from the state hasn’t improved over the years since I left the classroom, while the demands the state places on them has increased. While I won’t be able to resolve the issue by myself, I can use what I know and understand about science, the arts, and teaching to suggest some things that might integrate the Arts in today’s schools.

What does writing poetry have to do with art in schools, and teaching science?

One project I volunteered in last year was a poetry project designed and delivered by Ms. Jenny Mowery, the Hough Elementary School librarian. Ms. Mowery’s poetry project is delivered to all K-5 classes, one period at a time, and involves teaching a poetry genre like haiku or limerick to a class, then having them use that genre to write a poem about a person or historical era they had studied in her library. When the poems are ready to deliver, students find an image of a person they read about when they researched their topic, and transfer that image to an app, Chatterpix, which can be manipulated to have the image speak the poem. When they are satisfied with their app, they all sit on a carpet in front of the screen, and individual students present their Chatterpix poems for all to see and hear. No matter how students felt about writing poetry at the beginning of the project, they would become enthusiastic as they made progress writing their poem.

What does this have to do with science and art? Well, I was very impressed with the way Ms. Mowerey presented this project to kindergartners. Most weren’t ready, at the time of year they did the project, to write a poem. So, she had them decide what they would write about, then write a four-line, one word per line, poem on that. This worked very well, and I decided to think about how it could be amplified to reach more than one grade level, and even to develop into an interdisciplinary vehicle for other learnings.

I really liked this, and saw immediately that the kindergartners could draw a picture representing the concept or feeling each one-word line elicited, then put the pictures and words together in a way that made sense. What about older students? Could they do the same thing, but with more and more words, the older they were? This, I thought, had possibilities.

So, how would this look? Here’s how a simple school garden project might take shape. Let’s say we’re working with 7th graders in a middle school science class. And, we’ll have to pretend that there is a 7th grade English teacher who is interested in doing a collaboration with us. (It’s not easy for teachers in the US to do collaborative projects because they have many time demands, and very little free time. In many OECD countries, teachers are in the classroom for about half the day, and do classroom preparation, parental communication, and collaborative planning during the other part of the day.)

What is a possible place for science in Art and English?

My plan for this 7th grade science class is to develop a school garden plan from details we discover about soil presence and quality on the school grounds. After we know more about the school’s soils, we will choose an area and build a plan for our garden. Hopefully, our principal will approve our plan, and we can go to work. (Yes, the principal does already know about this!) The idea here is to provide students with an opportunity to meet a standard which expects them to engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade-level topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. Eventually, the class locates a spot, receives approval for their garden plan (The principal gave her okay after students presented their plan), and planting begins. And so, where is the English teacher?

She might be expected to be involved in writing the proposal to the principal, but she wasn’t. From the start, she had them write notes about what they did each day. Then, every Wednesday, they spent part of the English period using their notes to develop a story about some aspect of the garden. They were encouraged to write about the part of the project that was most interesting to them. Some wrote about who lives in the garden’s soil; what they found there, dangers they had to avoid, how they helped the plants we see above the soil. Others wrote about insects they found; their adventures, their hard work pollinating so many flowers, etc. As the work, and the notes progressed, the English teacher asked the students to begin morphing their stories into tales. This writing project continued after the garden project had evolved into routine maintenance, harvest, and observations. At this time, we had done lots of good science based on the garden, and would continue that.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Sustainability in Higher Education

Infusing Sustainability in Teacher Education in Washington: The Education for Sustainability STEM Outcomes Project


Universities and colleges across Washington State recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to collaborate on the improvement of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)teacher-preparation programs and to increase the recruitment of diverse STEM students into teaching careers. To accomplish these goals, a number of “critical-component working groups” were developed to create, adapt, and pilot materials and tools relevantto the preparation of STEM teachers. Education for Sustainability (EfS) is one of these critical-component groups; members of this working group hold a vision for an interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum that is accessible to all pre-service teachers (students preparing for careers in K12 teaching) in Washington State.

The development of an EfS curriculum and pedagogy will be systems-focused and will invoke place-, design-, problem- or project-based learning with an explicit emphasis on social, economic, and environmental justice. The EfS team aims to generate transformative learning experiences so that all pre-service teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach students scientifically rigorous and ecologically relevant sustainability-practices. EfS aims to increase the capacity for teachers to meaningfully address real-world challenges inside and outside of the classroom. Such preparation will culminate in K12 schools recognizing the importance of an EfS certification that integrates across existing state endorsable areas.

The Education for Sustainability Working Group is co-facilitated by Kathryn Baldwin, Eastern Washington University and Tamara Holmlund, Washington State University Vancouver. These leaders have built a large and diverse team of educators to contribute to this critically important task. The Working Group includes faculty members in teacher education from Eastern, Western, and Central Washington Universities and all three Washington State University campuses, as well as educators from K12 schools and non-profit organizations involved in environmental and sustainability education.

-from the Strengthening Sustainability on Washington Campus: A 2016-2017 Progress Report, produced by The Evergreen State College Curriculum for the Bioregion, Washington Center for Undergraduate Education. Jean MacGregor, C0-Director.