When Poetry and Chemistry Meet: Innovative New Study Shows How Poetry Helps Illuminate the Study of Science

Portrait of Mala Radhakrishnan, professor of chemistry at Wellesley College
Image credit: Lisa Abitbol
Author  Stacey Schmeidel
Published on 

Poetry is a genre not often found in chemistry classrooms—but maybe it should be.

Groundbreaking new research shows that poetry written during a college chemistry course can be used as a reflective tool to help faculty members—and perhaps others—better understand students’ classroom experiences.

The new research—by Mala Radhakrishnan, professor of chemistry at Wellesley College, and Sam Illingworth, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University—appears in the March 10 issue of Chemistry Education Research and Practice journal. The title: "‘I am here because I wanted to shine’“—a line from one student’s poem about their experience studying chemistry.

In the study, students from a team-taught, first-year chemistry/biology course were invited to write poetry about their experiences in class. The researchers used qualitative poetic content analysis to analyze the students’ poetry.

Analysis revealed that the students were writing about ideas that could be grouped into four major categories: knowledge, community, emotions and identity. The findings further highlight how poetry can be used to better understand student experiences related to learning, belonging and identity in introductory chemistry or related courses.

“Poetry offers students a way to communicate creatively about science,” Radhakrishnan notes. “There’s no right or wrong way to write a poem—so poetry makes it easier to open a window to someone’s thoughts. It offers a lot more freedom and flexibility in understanding someone’s journey through science.”

Radhakrishnan notes, for example, that students tended to write about identity—even when they weren’t prompted to. Further, they often used scientific metaphors to describe themselves, comparing themselves to an electron, for example, or to a chemical reaction’s transition state. One student wrote about “wishing for stability, like a noble gas.”

“Writing poetry allows them to understand science in terms of their personal experience,” Radhakrishnan notes. “And the metaphors are usually scientifically quite accurate.”

Radhakrishnan and Illingworth’s research demonstrates that student poetry can provide valid and useful information and insight into many factors linked to student outcomes, including competency beliefs, sense of belonging, perceptions of gender bias, and student perception of grade outcomes.

The research also demonstrates that poetic content analysis—an innovative and unexpected research technique in scientific fields—is an effective way to understand many aspects of student experience.

“Poetry has the power to conjure more emotions than prose,” Radhakrishnan notes. “It can stir up emotions. This research demonstrates that poetry is valuable, even in science courses.”