When STEM and Poetry Get Married

April doesn’t have to be the cruelest month!

by Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, STEAM Educator at NIU STEM Read

 Hey, it’s National Poetry Month!

Apologies to T. S. Eliot and the “The Wasteland,” but April isn’t such a bummer – It’s actually a pretty great month to dive into poetry.

Because spring is “new” every year, the season gives us so much to read about, to write about, to think about, to celebrate. Budding trees? Sure! New blooms on the rose bush? Of course! Robins waking you up at the crack of dawn as they search for the perfect nesting spot? Even them! Poetry and nature have walked through history hand-in-hand, working in tandem to explore and describe and make sense of the world.

Designated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month highlights the importance of poetry and poets not just rhapsodizing about love and truth and beauty but also about the real things that happen in our daily lives. Poetry doesn’t just use STEAM concepts as subject matter; it is a STEAM concept.

Poetry is very mathematical in structure, so much so that back in 2014, science writer Stephen Ornes coined April “Math Poetry Month,” and not only because April also is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month. In his essay “Can an Equation Be a Poem,” Ornes writes, “The theorems, proofs, and equations of mathematics are Big Ideas distilled to their naked cores. And what’s a poem, if not the pure distillation of an experience, emotion or idea?”

Useless

I struggled with math my entire life. And when I say struggled, I mean my brain would Shut. Down. Literature always was my jam, and it was poetry that led me to understand math better. When I was in college and started studying the structure of poetry, I realized, hey, this poetic pattern? That’s math. That villanelle? It’s all based on numbers. Huh. Maybe Euclid was onto something.

Poetry can be a gateway into the patterns of math, and math leads you to the mechanics of poetry. Formal poetry, in particular, like ballads and sonnets, lends itself well to mathematical theories because the poetic structures adhere to specific and strict patterns of meter, syllable, and sometimes rhyme.

Poetry is meant to be heard! Read it out loud, even if it’s to yourself. Tap out the beats as you read and listen. Counting beats? That’s math!

Other STEM concepts pop up in poetry all the time: biology, nature, space exploration. Here are some ways to get your students into the groove of merging math, science, and poetry:

1. With primary students, read aloud the poem “Honeybees” by Barbara Vance. Review the five senses with your students, then ask sensory questions about Vance’s poem: What does it sound like? Feel like? Look like? Smell like? Have they eaten honey? What does it taste like? Does the poem allow them to taste it? Bring in STEM concepts that are related to the poem, such as the pollination cycle and the important work of bees.  Why do we like bees so much, even though we know they sting?

2. With middle grade or high school students, read “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac Shakur. Don’t tell the students who wrote it until after you’ve discussed the poem a bit. Ask who they think the author is, what they think the author is saying, and why the author chose a rose, a common and sometimes overused poetic symbol, to represent their meaning. Introduce STEM concepts through biology: Would another flower work? Why or why not? What role does the science of nature play in this poem?

After this discussion, tell students who wrote the poem. Read it aloud again while they follow along. Ask students to discuss if their response to the poem changes at all, knowing who wrote it – why or why not? Is it unexpected? Have students explain their responses. 

3. Read aloud “Geometry” by Rita Dove (provided below) without allowing students to see the poem. Poetry is meant to be heard, and this helps students to “see” the poem as they hear it. Ask students to do one round of reflective freewriting for five minutes (no right or wrong way to do this except DON’T STOP WRITING). Provide them with guiding reflection questions: What did you visualize while listening? What do you think the speaker is talking about? Why? How is this a STEM poem?

Next, show students the poem and read it aloud again while they follow along. Ask them to do five more minutes of freewriting using these questions as a guide: What kind of “house” is the speaker talking about? How do you know? How does the speaker use STEM concepts, including mathematics, engineering, and biology, to create this journey?

Reconvene as a class and share responses to the poem. This can be done on an asynchronous class discussion board and/or in a virtual class meeting.

“Geometry” by Rita Dove

I prove a theorem and the house expands;
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

4. The haiku, a Japanese formal poem, is constructed on the principles of economy and brevity (saying more with fewer words) and precision (specific line and syllabic patterns). On her blog “Intersections – Poetry with Mathematics,” retired math professor and well-known mathematical poet JoAnne S. Growney explores STEM concepts in poetry both as a formal pattern and as subject matter.

Have your students read Growney’s haiku about Mars:

“Haiku to Mars”

I go for Mars, start

dreams – flights straight, stretched, streamed, whirled bright

Round bold red am I.

Then, ask guiding discussion questions: How does the structure of the poem affect the meaning of the poem? What is the speaker thinking and feeling about the “red planet”? Why does the speaker choose Mars? What does this poem reveal about the speaker’s connection to the larger world around them?

5. Ask your students to write a haiku using their favorite STEM topic, such as space, biology, coding, or sci-fi. Their haiku follows the pattern requirement:

  • It must have 3 lines
  • The lines do not rhyme
  • It must contain a total of 17 syllables and follow the haiku syllable patterns of 1-2-3-4-5/1-2-3-4-5-6-7/1-2-3-4-5

Ask students to think about how the structure of haiku is engineered: How do the line and syllable requirements make haiku an equation? What might this type of equation solve?

Have students read aloud their haiku and/or post to a class FlipGrid.**

Poetry is not all frou-frou and sappy stuff and flowers, although you will find a ton of poems about those very things (true confession: one of my favorite poems, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth, has beautiful phrasing about daffodils). There also are poems about other sciencey things like plankton or mosquitoes or astronomy. Whatever your jam is, you’ll probably find a poem about it. Or, write one of your own!

This month, enjoy discovering the connections between STEM and poetry and sharing the elegance of science and numbers and words with others!

**For Educators: The haiku writing activity meets the following state standards:

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

W.9-12 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.