Canned Goods: Poetry, Science, and Astronomical Inspiration

by Gillian King-Cargile, NIU STEM Read Director

At STEM Read, we love finding surprising connections between science and storytelling and between things that seem like polar opposites, like poetry and STEM.

Christine Brovelli-O’Brien’s post about poetry and math might have given you some ideas about how to STEAM up your ELA. Another great reference is the The Poetry of Science: The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science for Kids by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong. This book provides poems on tons of STEMy topics, everything from ancient Egyptian architecture to Jane Goodall, and includes science activities to go along with them. Many of the poems were written with the idea of teaching a concept through poetry.

But sometimes, we can make the most surprising connections not because we want to teach but because we want to understand. Poetry is a wonderful way to take an idea, strip away every unnecessary thing, and try to convey a truth. It’s a way to inquire about something–anything from the lifecycle of a glacier to the process that turns food into poop–and use artful language to help yourself learn what the thing means to the world. And because you are constrained by the brevity of a poem, you need to focus on precision of language, distilling your ideas down to the most significant and impactful things you’re thinking or feeling or questioning about your subject.

One of my favorite unintentionally STEMy poems is “The Big Bang is Not” by Michael Meyerhofer:

Meyerhofer is not a scientist, but his description of the Big Bang fascinates me more than any mathematical equation on astrophysics ever could. It also makes me want to learn more about the nature of the universe, the way matter thins, and the way humans make meaning and create art.

And it turns out, Meyerhofer’s metaphor of the expansion of the universe being like a blanket thinning is an apt one. Recent articles, like “What is the Universe Expanding Into” from Futurism have said that, “every region of the universe, every distance between every pair of galaxies, is being ‘stretched,’ pulled apart like taffy.” Just take a second and wrap your mind around that. The blank spaces between stars and planets is stretching like taffy.

So what came first? The curiosity about the scientific concept or the idea for the poem? Michael Meyerhofer writes about the extent to which curiosity and questions drive his writing process, which you can read more about here.

It’s mind-blowing that 99 little words can lead a reader to wonder about everything from the birth of the universe to the state of their own old bed spread, but that’s the power of poetry. And that’s what we’re challenging you or your students to do, to create a science-based poem that will fill somebody’s brain with real STEM concepts to the point that you create another big bang, expanding their mind in infinite ways. Here’s how:

  • Pick a science concept that you have a strong reaction to, something that fascinates, puzzles, or terrifies you.
  • Write down every question you have about the concept. Write down adjectives that describe how you feel about or perceive the concept.
  • Research at least five facts about the concept. Dig deeper than Wikipedia (although that’s a good place to start). Find out what scientists are saying about the concept right now. See if different researchers disagree. This is your chance to go down the rabbit hole of research and find all of the brain-bending weirdness you can. With science, truth is always stranger than fiction, but remember to keep track of your sources or people will think you made the craziest parts up.
  • Use the facts you’ve discovered to draft a poem that shares truths about the concept and your reaction to it.
  • Read your poem out loud. Does it say what you want it to say? Does it sound how you want it to sound? Does it capture that fascinating, puzzling, or terrifying feeling you had about the concept while sharing deeper information? If not, it’s not done. Keep tweaking the language until you get it right!
  • Share your poem with a friend or classmate and ask them what they learned or what questions the poem sparked about the concept. When conveyed strongly, your curiosity will be contagious!
Micheal Meyerhofer is the author of several award-winning books of poetry and fiction.

Some tips from Michael Meyerhofer on writing poetry:

1) Be as specific as you can, like you’re telling a story. Sometimes, we think that if we are vague, the reader will plug in their own experiences. Actually, readers have no interest in vague stories.

2) Rely on imagery, not abstractions. A good description of a dented soup can is always better than saying, “He was poor.”

3) Don’t be afraid to write something you don’t quite understand.

4) Use your own experiences, even if you decide to change them a bit. You are your own best source, and what you’ve seen and heard is worth telling.

5) Say what you’d say if you knew no one would ever see it. In other words, take a risk. If you feel a little nervous when you’re writing, that’s a good sign.

You can learn more about Michael Meyerhofer and his work here.

Standards for Educators:

W.1-2.7 Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observation).

RI.1-2.6 Craft and Structure: Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.

VA:Cr1.2.1 Investigate, Plan, and Make: Use observation and investigation in preparation for making a piece of art.

VA:Cr1.2.2. Investigate, Plan, and Make: Make art or design with various materials and tools to explore personal interests, questions, and curiosity.

W.9-12 Production and Distribution of Writing: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

W.9-12 Production and Distribution of Writing: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

SS.IS.1.9-12 Constructing Essential Questions: Address essential questions that reflect an enduring issue in the field.

SS.IS.3.9-12 Determining Helpful Sources: Develop new supporting and essential questions through investigation, collaboration, and using diverse sources.

SS.IS.4.9-12 Gathering and Evaluating Sources: Gather and evaluate information from multiple sources while considering the origin, credibility, point of view, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources. 

SS.IS.5.9-12 Developing Claims and Using Evidence: Identify evidence that draws information from multiple sources to revise or strengthen claims. 

SS.IS.7.9-12 Critiquing Conclusions: Articulate explanations and arguments to a targeted audience in diverse settings.