Spotlight on Teaching: Creative Chemistry

January 17, 2017
Professor Mala Radhakrishnan Teaching a Chemistry Class

Computational biophysical chemistry. Those who find the words themselves to be lyrical aren’t alone. Mala Radhakrishnan, associate professor of chemistry, frequently uses poetry and elements of creative writing—personification, analogies, and storytelling—to illustrate complex concepts in chemistry.

 “I have found that educators can make the molecular world more accessible by allowing themselves and students to use creative expressions that relate the molecular world to our familiar world,” Radhakrishnan writes in “Perspectives: The chemistry between us,” an essay for Chemical & Engineering News, a weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society and widely read by chemists in academia, government, and industry.

As Radhakrishnan explains in her piece, chemistry involves relationships and drama. For example, “When you have a romantic crush on someone, but don’t have the nerve to act on it, you’re like a molecule under kinetic control waiting for a ‘wingman’ catalyst. When it’s unclear if your relationship with someone is ‘friend’ or ‘significant other,’ you’re like an electron in a superposition of eigenstates, maintaining both labels simultaneously,” she writes. “What I’m saying here is that students—and everyone really—can connect with chemistry because we already do so every day without realizing it.”

Radhakrishnan often uses similar examples in her classes at Wellesley, she said in an interview. “I think it’s important, when learning anything, to find a way to relate new information to information you already know—this provides context for the new information and helps it fit into your own scheme of understanding things,” she said. “That’s why I think analogies and personification work, especially when you use things that everyone can relate to—making friends, relationships, growing up, fitting in.”

Radhakrishnan began developing her unusual approach while teaching high school in San Jose, Calif., through the Teach for America program. Many of her students struggled with the math and science involved in the coursework, or they found the material dry and irrelevant. Radhakrishnan’s mentor, the chair of the chemistry department, used creative explanations with her students. Radhakrishnan decided to try that herself. What she found, over time, is that “analogies are like catalysts that get students engaged.”

At Wellesley, Radhakrishnan frequently uses analogies, personification, and storytelling both in the classroom and during office hours, where she will “try to come up with an analogy ‘on the fly,’ to help a student who’s struggling with a particular concept,” she said. “I find this exercise actually helps me stay on top of the material as well.”

Poetry is another effective tool for Radhakrishnan, who published a book of rhyming verse called Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances in 2011. Each piece addresses complex concepts in a humorous way, as with the poem “Guiding Light,” about the relationship between various atoms and isotopes. The poem begins, “Hello there, good Doctor. My name is Leon,/ Emitted last night by an atom of neon./ Because I am light, I’ve got reason to rave,/ For I can exist as both particle and wave.” Radhakrishnan’s verse is popular with her students, she said, and has been used in both high schools and colleges to help students connect with chemistry.

As she notes in her essay, everything in chemistry is a model, as are analogies. “Every model is imperfect, and the more we explore them, the more we can have substantive discussions about their strengths and limitations, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of the truths they attempt to represent,” she writes.

Radhakrishnan’s students have told her many times how much they appreciate her approach. Some even make use of personification and their own chemistry-themed analogies in their course evaluations, “which I really appreciate,” she said.