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Upper School Students Win Top Honors for Scientific Poetry

Monday, December 12, 2016

What’s poetic about chemistry? According to two award-winning Upper School students, quite a bit.

Junior Ruth Dibble and Sophomore Suyan McDuffie were honored recently by the American Chemical Society for poems they wrote for this year’s National Chemistry Week contest. And, both students say, thinking poetically about science helped them appreciate it in new and enlightening ways.

The contest theme was “Solving Mysteries Through Chemistry,” and the assignment was to write a poem of no more than 40 words on that theme. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of that assignment, Upper School chemistry teacher Laura Slocum partnered with Upper School English teacher Elisha Sircy, and the two worked together with students to help them explore specific topics, craft poems, and compose brief paragraphs explaining how their poems connected to the contest theme. Students received grades in both their science and English classes for their work on the assignment.

Ruth’s poem, which was awarded first place in the regional competition and is now entered in the national competition, explored, from a scientific perspective, how the use of invisible ink helped General Washington to foil the British in the Revolutionary War. “Ms. Slocum suggested that invisible ink might be an interesting topic,” Ruth said. “I looked it up, and actually found an article about messages delivered during the Revolutionary war, which I had just studied in history. Soon, I learned that chemistry was the explanation for the ink used in these important messages.”

Suyan’s poem, “A Chemystery,” won second place in the regional competition and is a more general meditation on spirit of inquiry that leads to important scientific breakthroughs. “It was nice to get out of routine and really do something creative in class,” she said. “It definitely got me enthusiastic and thinking about our material in a different light.”

That, said Mr. Sircy, is one of the things he most appreciates about the assignment. “It’s somewhat trite to observe this now, but I think that there has been so much specialization and fragmentation in academic pursuits that the whole picture gets lost.  Thinkers going back at least to ancient Greece and even Egypt saw ‘learning’ as away of approaching and assimilating all types of knowledge, whether that was mathematical or emotional or spiritual.  Lucretius and Galileo would write their scientific treatises as literary documents, the former even in strict meter.  But as each field deepens and gets more sophisticated, the fundamental connections among them can be lost.”  

The assignment required students to write both a poem and a short paragraph that explained how their poem connected to the theme for NCW and how they incorporated “chemistry,” as it had been discussed so far in class, into their poems. The students received grades for the assignment in both English and chemistry. “Laura is the real mastermind of this, and the students have done stellar work every year,” Mr. Sircy said.  “What this project does that is so great is help students find the structural formulae in poetry and the inspirational originality in chemical processes.  Both elements are always in both fields, but it’s so great to emphasize the portions that tend to get sublimated in each.  To see poetry as having a logic and to witness the beauty in chemistry brings back the cohesion that too much specialization hides.“ 

The assignment is also valuable, said Ms. Slocum, for the way it can help students "make connections to their 'real' world." 

"I also wanted to give the students that tend to be more creative an opportunity to use their creativity that they often feel is 'boxed-in' during science classes," she said.  "There are actually a number of places that creativity is needed within the scientific and mathematical world and I want students to see and experience those opportunities whenever possible.  I also want them to know that there are and can be connections between all of the disciplines in academia and that we often do not need to look very far to find them."

Suyan and Ruth both agreed that completing an assignment that required them to think across two disciplines sharpened their thinking in productive ways. “I really loved the idea that we were pulling in our knowledge of chemistry and doing something artistic with it,” Suyan said.

 “I think an assignment that combines different disciplines is much more representational of life,” Ruth said. “After all, once we graduate, problems won't be separated by classes. Escaping the rigidity of class with a creative assignment definitely allowed for deeper thinking and application of chemistry outside of the lab.”