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.”

Connecting Art and Science

Connecting Art and Science

Making Science Engaging at Camp

Connecting art and science helps students find STEM classes more engaging and enjoyable

By Elli Korthuis


is a youth development organization that focuses on helping members, ages 5-19 years, grow as individuals through their mastery of their passions, referred to as their spark. The more traditional 4-H program offers clubs in projects such as sewing, presentations, and livestock. However, 4-H reaches a broader audience through its non-traditional programs including camp and in-school instruction.

We attempt to offer a broad range of classes at our 4-H camps including those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). One of the reoccurring themes we see in 4-H camp evaluations is that the science classes are “boring” while the craft classes have remained highly popular. With the growing need for STEM education, we needed to find a way to make these classes more engaging and enjoyable for the youth.

Over 2017, my colleague, Robin Galloway, and I developed a camp class to teach aquatic science, microscope skills, and basic nature terminology. To engage the youth in the STEM themed class, we incorporated art lessons since this was where their interest resided according to past evaluations. It was initially to be taught at the Oregon 4-H Center in Salem for campers in grades 4 – 8 along with their camp counselors. The facility is in a forested region with camp cabins, several buildings for lessons, and a pond.

Drinking the Water

During the class, we started indoors with a discussion of what organisms and materials could be found in the pond. I opened by asking which youth would want to drink the water from the pond. To my surprise, nearly half the class agreed that it would be safe to drink the unfiltered pond water. Several more said they wouldn’t because it was “gross” but didn’t have an explanation for their answer. We talked about the flora and fauna that may leave their traces in the water all the way down to potential microscopic organisms. Terms were explained along the way but there was nearly always at least one youth that could define a scientific term for the class. It was also an opportunity to gauge how in depth their knowledge was of water particles from different sources.

After our discussion, we went as a group to the pond and they could compare their discussion to what they were seeing. We got a bucket of pond water for a water sample and the youth had the chance to identify some of the particulates. Clipboards with water color paper and a pencil were given to each youth and they were asked to draw the macroscopic world they were seeing on the top half of their paper. The drawing time gave us the opportunity to delve into how some of the organisms present could affect us if we drank the water and what other organisms and materials may be present at different sources such as the ocean, a river, or a swimming pool.

The class finished their drawings and we took our supplies and the water sample inside. I put a drop of the water sample on a microscope slide, making sure to include the particulates that had filtered to the bottom of the bucket. We had brought a digital microscope that included a small LCD screen to view the slide. In a larger group setting, this microscope could have been attached to a projector to show a greater audience. With our water sample under the microscope lens, we identified the materials and organisms. One of the highlights was when we found a mosquito larva and were able to use the highest magnification to view the blood platelets flowing through its open circulatory system. It wasn’t an original part of the lesson but an added bonus. Although some youth were disgusted by what they saw, the majority were fascinated and wanted to continue in the discoveries. The class was then asked to draw the microscopic organisms and particulates they had seen on the bottom half of their paper. We wanted to encourage the scientific fascination so after a quick explanation of how to use a microscope, the youth were free to continue searching for other organisms if they wished to during the allotted drawing time. We also discussed how some of the organisms they had seen impact our health and environment.

Although many of the youth were comfortable drawing what they saw, there were a few in each class that didn’t feel confident in their drawing skills. We encouraged them in different ways including saying perfection was not the goal and joking that it could be called abstract instead. The time constraint also helped encourage the youth that weren’t as confident drawing because they understood high quality drawings could not be expected in the given time.

Water color pencils were distributed after the initial drawings were done so the campers could fill in the color. While they were coloring, I poured our water sample into several cups and passed them around with paint brushes. The youth then created the water color painting by brushing the water sample over the water color pencil areas. While painting, they remarked on how the particulates from the pond water changed both the texture and color of their painting. We talked about how the results would be different if they had used another water source and they were overflowing with ideas.

Their views on whether they were willing to drink the pond water were drastically different from when we started the class. Not one camper wanted to drink the water and many were quick to offer their explanations why.


We ended with a quick evaluation to gauge how their opinions about both art and science had changed after taking the class. Some of the highlights from the evaluation include:

  • 71.11% agreed or strongly agreed science is not boring after taking this class.
  • 76.09% agreed or strongly agreed they want to learn more about science as a result of this class.
  • 63.64% agreed or strongly agreed they would do more art in their free time because of this class.

The evaluation method was also an experiment for our program. We were trying to encourage higher levels of participation since regular paper survey evaluations are turned down by a large percentage of attendees normally. Instead, we had larger flip chart papers with each evaluation question stuck to the wall with columns for strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Each youth was given a set of numbered stickers to share their opinion. This made the evaluation more engaging while remaining anonymous and encouraged more honest opinions. It was an extremely successful evaluation method that I will continue to use in the future.

After successfully conducting the class with 4th to 8th grade youth, we decided to offer it at a day camp for youth ages 5-8. The concepts were simplified but the class was still a high level science lesson for youth in this age group. They still discussed what the water sample contained, defined terms such as microscopic and macroscopic, learned how to use a microscope, and exceeded our expectations for their ages. These youth were not formally evaluated but from my individual conversations and the group discussions, I observed that the youth were engaged and excited about the entire class.

Since conducting the classes, this concept has been taught at the American Camp Association (ACA) 2017 Oregon Trail Fall Education Event where camp staff and directors from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho all enthusiastically agreed that they would like to incorporate it in their own classes. It will also be taught at the Western Regional Leaders Forum held in San Diego, CA in March 2018.

I am excited to expand this lesson into several 4-H camp STEM classes in the future. I believe that bridging the gap between art and STEM has proven itself to be a sound method for teaching “boring” science concepts to campers