Opinion

An Ode To STEM? What poets can teach academic scientists

As college students in STEM fields scour university website offerings for the fall semester, they are likely overlooking an important element.

These science, technology, engineering and math students would do well to add some poetry courses on their schedules.




A recent initiative from Rhode Island School of Design makes explicit the need to integrate STEM with art and design — known as STEAM — toward innovation. It’s a global initiative, with China launching a new educational Center, and Korean mathematics educators evaluating the practices for teaching mathematics in Korea.

Compared to the growing momentum behind the movement to integrate STEM and the visual arts, the importance of literature, and poetry specifically, has been overlooked.

Aside from inspiration, there is an everyday pragmatic value for scientists in reading poetry. The clarity of a good poem is the ideal tonic for the meandering writing so often characteristic of grants and research papers. And writing, for better or worse, is the major activity of a modern academic scientist.

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It is well-established that reading shapes writing, particularly among children. The diverse language and conceptual constructions of poetry can benefit the scientist’s writing style too.

Mimicking the distilled precision of poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Rita Dove or Wallace Stevens is a good start to any manuscript. Several scientific writing guides from Introduction to Journal-Style Scientific Writing to The Basics of Scientific Writing in APA Style emphasize the importance of precision and clarity in writing.

As is evidenced by the quality of writing we see from our students, undergraduate and graduate STEM training does not prepare students for rapid, clear writing that they will need to pursue funding successfully.

Funding rates for key federal grants have edged below 10 percent, and the average amount of time required to write a grant is estimated to be approximately 100 hours. That’s just the writing, not counting the time spent on doing the research.

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Clearly written papers and research grants are more likely to pass through peer review than ill-phrased offerings. Many science publication venues impose tight word limits. A well-crafted research paper wastes no words — like a poem.

In many universities, humanities requirements exist in engineering schools and department, but are fairly modest. At Northwestern University, seven quarter-long courses in social science or humanities are required for engineers.

But outside of class requirements, professors, scientists and engineers can do more to promote healthy reading habits for students and colleagues that include poetry. As professors, we keep favorite poetry books in our offices, discuss poetry with our students and often forward to our students Poem-a-day, a daily free poem from the Academy of American Poets.

While we have no scientific evidence that this practice improves their career prospects, many of these students have gone on to scientific success. Their ability to shift perspectives and see their science from multiple viewpoints may have been honed, in part, we believe, through poetry.

Next fall, in an upper class seminar on the neuroscience of animal behavior, students will begin each class with a short writing exercise, encouraged to ponder a scientific question or a finding. In this freeform exercise, they may propose experiments, pose questions, and will be encouraged to write poetically.

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In science education, cultural origins and ethnic diversity are not marked as topics of discussion. But the inclusion of work from an ethnically diverse group of poets, professors can introduce these elements into the discourse, influence the cultural richness of education for all students, and help to build an inclusive classroom where minority students feel welcomed and valued.

It is within the lines of poetry that students can discover, celebrate and appreciate other cultures, dialects, ethnicities, world views and experiences. As science educators, we have integrated literature and poetry into scientific training. Students read poems in research seminars, discuss the poems and attempt to connect them to their research. We have created poetry reading series that focus on an audience of scientists.

However, this approach may be an anomaly. As academic science requires increasingly lengthy dedicated training, many scientists no longer encounter poetry in their studies. They may not see the value of poetry to their work.

It was not always so – great scientists of the past sought inspiration in poetry.

Nineteenth century botanist and anatomist Johann Wolfgang Goethe is known for his poetry. Other scientists were inspired by poetry to emphasize the imaginative dimensions of science. As Albert Einstein said: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

As scientists, we contend what will suffice for a modern academic scientist in training is the inclusion of poetry.

Dr. Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy is an assistant professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University.

Dr. Uri Wilensky is a professor of Learning Sciences, Computer Science and Complex Systems at Northwestern University.

Both authors are NU Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.

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Uri Wilensky

Dr. Uri Wilensky is a professor of Learning Sciences, Computer Science and Complex Systems at Northwestern University. See Archive

Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy

Dr. Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy is an assistant professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University. See Archive