Poetry and alkali metals: building bridges to the study of atomic radius and ionization energy

J. L. Araújo *a, C. Morais *b and J. C. Paiva b
aDepartamento de Química e Bioquímica, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade do Porto, 4169-007, Porto, Portugal. E-mail: jl.arauj@gmail.com
bCIQUP, Unidade de Ensino das Ciências, Departamento de Química, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade do Porto, 4169-007, Porto, Portugal. E-mail: cmorais@fc.up.pt; jcpaiva@fc.up.pt

Received 15th June 2015 , Accepted 2nd August 2015

First published on 3rd August 2015


Exploring chemistry through its presence in the literature in general, and poetry in particular, may increase students' curiosity, may enhance several basic skills, such as writing, reading comprehension and argumentative skills, as well as may improve the understanding of the chemistry topics covered. Nevertheless, the pedagogical potential of the link between poetry and chemistry has not yet been fully explored in school. This article describes a study during which a teaching strategy was used with pre-university students of introductory chemistry in order to explore the topics atomic radius and ionization energy by resorting to a poem about alkali metals. The study resulted in new poems and cartoons of chemical elements created by the students, which, together with the results of a questionnaire survey, were positive indicators of the impact of poetry in the motivation and learning of the chemistry topics explored. While the students showed some difficulties interpreting the poem, they considered that teaching chemistry with poetry is a motivating strategy that should be used more often, and that it enhances the students' engagement in the construction of significant learning.

Introduction and purpose

According to UNESCO (2001), the teaching of science should develop scientific literacy in the students so that they might value the importance of scientific and technological advances in a social, economic and environmental perspective (STSE perspective).

On the one hand there is significant appreciation and dissemination of the teaching of chemistry in a STSE perspective (Solbes and Vilches, 1997; Yörük et al., 2010; Zoller, 2011, 2012), but, on the other hand chemistry can be introduced by its occurrences in the literature, in general, or in poetry, in particular, as a new and unconventional strategy (Furlan et al., 2007; Paiva et al., 2013). Notwithstanding the fact that literature suggests an old relationship between chemistry and art, dating back to the Renaissance (Greenberg, 1988), the lack of formal research on the subject suggests that the connection between chemistry and poetry is not very common in our schools, and that is what drove us to the study described in this article. Thus, the following objectives were identified: (a) to design a pedagogical intervention strategy focusing on a poem that would allow the introduction of the topics atomic radius and ionization energy; (b) to investigate whether it would be possible to use a poem as a model and as a motivation to the production of other artistic products focused on chemistry.

In this article we present some ideas about the teaching of chemistry using poetry, trying to assess the extent to which the dialogue between literature and science contributes to students' learning. The design and implementation of the pedagogical strategy are described in detail in the methodology section, with emphasis being placed on the chemical interpretation of the poem used in the study. Then, the results are presented and discussed. The article ends with the systematization of the main conclusions and with the presentation of future projects that will complement this investigation.

Chemistry education and poetry

The chemistry teacher often faces the challenge of teaching a subject which is believed to be difficult and not very appealing (Zoller, 1990; Sirhan, 2007; Dwyer and Childs, 2014). Thus, in the words of Alber (2001), it becomes crucial to win “the students who find science difficult and unappealing, not simply because they are not mathematically inclined, but also because they find the language, concepts, and people of science abstract and alien” (p. 478). Connecting chemistry and poetry might be a good way to reach those students, as Pyburn et al. (2013) argue, “we believe that language comprehension [that can be improved using poetry] is a key variable for predicting performance in introductory chemistry” (p. 525). Still talking about poetry and chemistry, Herrick and Cording (2012), also consider that:

“This is clearly an interesting way to examine a topic in chemistry. It attracted much student interest and engaged students' attention; reading about a scientific subject when it is presented in a poetic fashion is fun for science students. They take subjects other than chemistry and biology, including English courses, and they enjoy using their talents in the humanities to think about important chemical concepts in a nontraditional way” (p. 217).

Following this line of reasoning, Kohnen (2013) refers “that a variety of writing assignments may help with student engagement in science classes” (p. 234). According to Cooke (1991) when we encourage students to write we engage them in the subjects that they are exploring. That way the students learn how to recognize patterns, how to interconnect ideas, and how to build their own knowledge. Marcum-Dietich et al. (2009), warn us that teachers “often ignore the close ties between writing and thinking, and treat writing as merely a form of assessment” (p. 14), and defend the idea that “when students write, whether in English or chemistry class, they transform their thoughts into concrete form” (p. 14) and that, therefore, “writing in creative genres, although unusual in science classrooms, can help students absorb scientific knowledge by allowing them to express scientific thought in their own voices” (p. 15).

In a study conducted by Alber (2001), with students from the University of Pennsylvania (USA), poetry was used during general chemistry classes and the students were asked to write a poem about a scientific theory of their choice. Most of the students were motivated in such a way that “several wrote about this project in their college application essays as one of their most interesting academic experiences” (p. 480). Furlan et al. (2007) have also conducted an experiment, during an interdepartmental collaboration at the University of Pittsburgh (USA), where students were supposed to write poems and design posters on chemistry topics. The poems and the posters were shown at the University and, according to the authors, they aroused the curiosity and the interest of the academic community. Nemeth (2006) carried out a study with students from secondary education where he used poems that were discussed in the light of chemistry, leading to the translation of the artistic expression into chemical expression, particularly, the writing of chemical equations. In the words of the author, “chemistry becomes prosaic in its analogy to the everyday experience of words; chemistry becomes exotic in its revelation of a strange and unusual aspect of nature. So for those looking with new eyes into the invisible world of atoms and molecules, there can be no better way of seeing than speaking the language of chemistry” (Nemeth, 2006, p. 594).

In the view of several studies carried out, it appears that the teaching and learning of chemistry involving poetry is motivating and beneficial to the learning process. Inspired by the experiences found in the literature, which are very promising and positive but are also still limited, we designed and planned the study described in the following sections.


Characterization of participants

A pre-university chemistry class, of 21 students, 9 girls and 16 boys, aged between 15 and 17 years old, was involved in the study during the school year of 2013/2014.

Procedure and materials

Before we describe, in more detail, the pedagogical intervention strategy, it is important to note that previously to its implementation, the school Director and the students were informed about the research objectives – stressing “why the research is valuable to suggest how the potential participant will possibly be helping future teachers and/or students by participating” (Taber, 2014, p. 111). Bearing in mind the “basic democratic principle that individuals have a right to make a free choice over whether to contribute to a study or not” (British Educational Research Association, 2011), students freely chose whether or not to participate in the research, and it was made clear that no sanctions would be applied against the non-participants. Additionally, during the study, sensible safeguards like information that some tasks and/or questions may not have ready or clear answers, and so forth, were included.

The pedagogical intervention strategy was carried out during four introductory chemistry classes focusing on the atomic radius and the ionization energy, and on the periodic trends for these two properties. The classes were 45 minutes long. The four classroom sessions were followed by two weeks of student's autonomous work in order to accomplish all the proposed tasks.

The idea of establishing pedagogic bridges between poetry and chemistry required a previous research about the most suitable poems for the introduction of the chosen topics.

The poem “The atoms' family” published in the book “Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances” (Radhakrishnan, 2011) was selected. The chemical interpretation of the poem presented in Table 1 was used to build the pedagogical strategy.

Table 1 Chemical interpretation of the poem “The atoms' family” (Radhakrishnan, 2011)
Poem “The atoms' family” (Radhakrishnan, 2011)
Verses (Radhakrishnan, 2011) Our chemical interpretation
1st verse Let's take a look at my family portrait

Up ‘til today have I always ignored it

My brother, my sister, my parents, and I

Are proud to be alkali metals. Here's why:

The introduction to the poem, where the elements that will be studied are presented as alkali metals.
2nd verse It's true that as atoms we're really quite large

By our meager effective nuclear charge.

But our size is a source of our family's pride;

Our electrons can wander both far and wide.

The concept of atomic radius is explained as a consequence of the nuclear charge of each alkali metal.
3rd verse We're all rather ductile and malleable,

And this makes us really quite valuable,

Because we will readily ionize,

Becoming attractive, a positive prize.

Two properties of alkali metals are presented: ductility and malleability.

Introduction to the concept of ionization energy.

4th verse There's sodium, my sister. She's over there.

Like me, she ought to be sealed up with care.

She'll react with water or even the air,

Giving her ‘lectron up anywhere.

The element sodium is presented as an extremely reactive alkali metal in the presence of air and water.

A reference to the ionization of the elements and the formation of their mono-positive ions.

5th verse And here is potassium. He is my brother,

Ionically bonding with things like no other.

Quite social like I am, and much like my sister,

He just met a halogen, has already kissed her!

Potassium is introduced as another alkali metal and as an element that bonds with halogens and creates ionic compounds.
6th verse My parents, rubidium, cesium are they.

They're dying to give their electrons away.

As ours are their properties mostly the same,

But they're so extreme they can put us to shame.

Rubidium and cesium are also presented as alkali metals.

The comparison of rubidium's and cesium's atomic radii with sodium's and potassium's atomic radii is used to explore the atomic radius periodic trend down the group.

7th verse You cannot see francium, here in this snap.

He left in radioactive mishap.

The legend reports that he was unstable.

To me, his existence is merely a fable.

Francium is presented as a radioactive element as a consequence of its extreme reactivity and instability.
8th verse And there is a rumor that's having a run,

That hydrogen's my illegitimate son.

I swear he was left, though, on our front stoop,

And we're not really sure he belongs in our group.

Hydrogen is stressed as having different properties from alkali metals' family in spite of being included in this periodic group of elements.
9th verse Well, that is our photo, and here my tour ends.

You see, in my group there are patterns and trends.

The same likely holds true for you, you see–

“The apple can't fall very far from the tree!”

The periodic trends and patterns of properties down the group are referred.

The students explored the poem in class, guided by a questionnaire, which was specifically designed to cover all the learning objectives.

The sequence of steps to be taken within the pedagogical strategy is described below in detail.

Description of the strategy designed to include the poem about alkali metals in the chemistry classes:

Step 1 – each student read the poem individually, examining and listing the chemical concepts explored.

Step 2 – following the reading activity, the students were invited to share their personal interpretations and to analyse the poem.

Step 3 – after the initial discussion, the poem was analysed in greater detail, with a particular focus on verses 2 and 3.

Step 4 – on the basis of the analysis set out in step 3, the students were handed a worksheet where they were questioned about: what did these elements have in common about “size” that made them “proud” and what made them “attractive”. These questions were supposed to help the students identify the periodic trends in atomic radius and ionization energy of alkali metals. The students were also asked to predict the periodic trends in these properties for other groups of elements in the Periodic Table, so that, after a group discussion, they could establish the periodic trends in atomic radius and ionization energy along all groups and periods in the Periodic Table.

Step 5 – after the discussion, the whole class was invited to establish the periodic trends in these properties based on the factors that may influence them.

Step 6 – drawing inspiration from the poem they had just analysed, the students were challenged to express their creativity and their knowledge about chemistry, and to carry out a project outside of the classroom, as autonomous work. Thus, they were asked to choose one of the following tasks, that they should perform individually or in small groups of two or three students:

Task 1 – draw cartoons of chemical elements (or of the elemental substances) personified as human characters, taking into account their physical and chemical properties.

Task 2 – write a poem about chemical elements (or about the elemental substances) highlighting their properties or their everyday life applications.

The students were told that the chemical elements to be used in their projects could be chosen from the chemical elements portrayed in the initial poem or that they could choose different chemical elements (or elemental substances) not mentioned in the initial poem.

Step 7 – the finished projects were assessed by the teacher and handed back to the students with feedback about its scientific accuracy, or lack thereof, so that students' learning might be achieved and enhanced. The projects were also assessed and commented in class, by all the students.

Data analysis

In the analysis of the research data, the content analysis technique was employed since it is not limited to the analysis of the texts but also addresses the analysis of the drawings, including science-related topics (Ruiz-Mallén and Escalas, 2012). In this way we were able to categorize each poem or cartoon created by the students according to its thematic focus. The projects were also assessed in terms of five different categories: (a) aesthetic sensitivity; (b) technical and scientific accuracy; (c) originality; (d) compliance with the objectives; and (e) personal appropriation.

The categorization of the projects resulted in a concern to ensure the objectivity and led us to use a “blind judge” (a chemistry teacher not involved in the study) who attributed codes to the students' projects that later were compared with the categorizations made by the authors.

As a data collection instrument, a questionnaire (anonymous and confidential) was prepared (please, see the Appendix 1), in order to collect the opinion of the students on the pedagogical intervention strategy used. A descriptive statistical processing (frequency analysis) of the answers of the students to the questionnaire was used.

Results and discussion

In the following we present some of the works of the students, namely the poems: “Potassium”, “Helium and the noble gases” and “Hydrogen”; and the cartoons of elements Hydrogen (Fig. 1) and Francium (Fig. 2).
image file: c5rp00115c-f1.tif
Fig. 1 Cartoon of the element hydrogen.

image file: c5rp00115c-f2.tif
Fig. 2 Cartoon of the element francium.


I'm allergic to water

I just can't stand it

If it gets near me

I bubble and sizzle.

Helium and the noble gases

I am Helium, a noble gas.

I am the smallest in my family

I don't have many electron-friends

But I am the funniest of them all

I make voices sound squeaky

I make balloons float in the air

Children get happy

Watching them levitate.

My family is very lonely

We do not like to socialize

We do not get together with other elements

We are just stable enough to survive.

We are rare in the world

As we are gases we go unnoticed

As we are so stable

We are unknown to the others.

Neon, Argon and Krypton are my siblings

And are they good at drawing your attention.

When you look at illuminated advertising

You are for sure looking at them.

Xenon and Radon are my parents

we are much smaller than them

They share their electrons with no one

Their children take after them.

My missing grandfather is Ununoctium

We think that we know it exists

But we are just starting to meet it

And listen to its stories.


This is an unknown element

I wonder to which group it belongs

I wonder if it is a non-metal

Only the future knows.

Below is a short analysis and discussion of the students' projects – poems and cartoons – which have resulted from the pedagogical use of the poem “The atoms' family” (Radhakrishnan, 2011) in the chemistry classes.

The poems written by the students were mainly focused on a specific chemical element and portrayed the element's properties and its everyday life applications. On that basis, the poems were categorized according to their main thematic focus (the elements present in the initial poem, new elements and their everyday life applications), as presented below in the Venn diagram (Fig. 3).

image file: c5rp00115c-f3.tif
Fig. 3 Categorization of the poems written by the students according to their thematic focus.

Looking into the thematic focus of the poems written by the students it was found that most of them have written poems about different chemical elements, whether present in the initial poem or not.

Some of the poems focused directly on the periodic properties, atomic radius and ionization energy. That is the case of the poem “Helium and the noble gases”, where several characteristics of these elements were described such as: their low reactivity; their high ionization energies; and the trend of their atomic radii as you move down a group. These concepts were indirectly addressed in other poems, such as the poem “Hydrogen”, particularly where a reference is made to the size of the atom or to the equal tendency to gain or lose electrons. Another issue addressed in the poems was the possibility of using the elemental substances related to different elements in everyday life contexts, such as using lithium in batteries or using helium in balloons.

As was previously mentioned, the exploration of the poem “The atoms' family” (Radhakrishnan, 2011) could also result in cartoons of one or several chemical elements. Looking into the cartoons created by the students, it was found that, as it happened with the poems, there was a tendency to portray the properties of the chemical element or the relationships between elements. That is why each cartoon was categorized according to its thematic focus (elements from the initial poem, new elements, elemental substances or relationships between elements), as can be seen below in the Venn diagram (Fig. 4).

image file: c5rp00115c-f4.tif
Fig. 4 Categorization of the cartoons according to their thematic focus.

Most of the cartoons designed by the students, like it happened with the poems, portray elements that were not mentioned in the initial poem, like for instance, heavy elements.

On the whole, it was noted that the students preferred to picture a single atom of a single chemical element in their cartoons, with only a small number of students choosing to picture the interaction between two atoms of two different elements, or the properties of elementary substances of a given chemical element. It was perceived that the students experienced more difficulties to portray the concepts of atomic radius and ionization energy in the cartoons.

Nevertheless, looking at their projects, it was possible to see the relationships between the size of the atoms (comparing atoms from different elements), the sturdy look of the heavy elements (often portrayed with well-defined muscles), and how the more or less difficulty of an atom to give away their electrons is depicted (through the relationships between the atoms wishing to form ions), which could more or less be connected with the ionization energy.

A closer look at the cartoons showed that, in general, they lacked scientific accuracy as opposed to the poems and that, although they were original, most students were not as concerned with the aesthetic value of their works.

As was the case with the poems, some cartoons were related to topics that had not yet been addressed in class, such as the heavy elements (uranium in particular) or carbon elementary substances, which again might indicate that the project led the students to further research about the topics in question. Evidence of this is the number of new chemical elements portrayed which, as in the case of the poems, may suggest a conceptual enlargement compared to the contents of the initial poem.

The students' answers to the questionnaire (Chart 1) suggest that the exploration of the poem has enhanced their understanding about the chemical topics involved (question 5).

image file: c5rp00115c-c1.tif
Chart 1 Graphical representation of the answers of the students to the pedagogical strategy evaluation questionnaire.

The students recognized that the use of poetry in the study of chemistry is a positive option. It should be noted that, in spite of having consented to participate in this study, the chronically uninterested students admitted not having committed themselves to the tasks (question 6), but, the large majority stressed that the strategy was interesting and absorbing and that they believed it had a positive impact in their learning of the subjects (questions 1–3).

The feedback from the students (questions 4 and 8) was very encouraging: “we should write more poems”, “it helps learning in a different way”, “the activities improve the learning and help acquire more knowledge” or “using poetry […] motivates the students and helps understand the subjects”. In view of this we believe that more strategies for the teaching of chemistry through poetry should be created and implemented. The students have recognized, nonetheless, that the interdisciplinarity of the project could be improved (question 7). Thus, we agree with several authors (Furlan et al., 2007; Marcum-Dietich et al., 2009; Herrick and Cording, 2012) who point to the advantages of the collaboration with other school subjects, such as languages. The collaboration with the Portuguese language class could help the interpretation of the poem and the collaboration with the English language class could have the advantage of taking care of the translation process, allowing the students to develop skills in a foreign language as they learn chemistry.

In the beginning of the study, it was clear, through classroom observation, and through the students' answers given to the worksheet that supported the poem exploration, that they were surprised at the new pedagogical strategy and at being asked to interpret a poem in the light of chemistry. But most of the students were able to understand the chemical concepts introduced – the chemical properties of the elements, in particular the atomic radius and the ionization energy – and were motivated to learn chemistry this way. Additionally, the poems and the cartoons created by the students seem to indicate that this pedagogical strategy can enhance the development of creative and critical thinking.


This investigation started with the design of an intervention strategy based on the exploration of a poem in order to provide the foundations for the study of the atomic radius and the ionization energy. The planning and the production of support materials were carried out according to the previous knowledge about chemistry and to the cognitive development of the students. The suggestions made to the students about what they should produce took into account their different interests, profiles and modes of artistic expression, which is why two different outputs were allowed – poems and cartoons – leaving to the students the choice of the most appropriate way in which to express their ideas.

The teaching of chemistry using poetry was a new learning experience to the students involved in the study, that is why, when it was implemented, there was a natural sense of surprise. Learning through unconventional teaching strategies requires a longer adaptation process. This is so because, as some students pointed out, the strategies used to teach most of the subjects lack diversity. Nevertheless, we could observe a growing commitment and enthusiasm from the students when analysing the poem, which impacted in the projects developed and in the answers to the questionnaires.

On the whole, we can assert that bridging chemistry and poetry is a suitable pedagogical strategy to meet the objectives for classroom sessions, and that it may enhance meaningful learning and encourage creative thinking. In the end, we believe that the implementation of this pedagogical strategy in the chemistry classes contributed positively to the student's learning. This contribution can be assessed, for instance, by the variety of chemical elements, and their properties, portrayed in the projects of the students and by its creativity and originality. The students were also of the opinion that this strategy of using poetry to study chemistry has strongly contributed to motivate them to learn and that the production of artistic content would be an additional stimulus towards a meaningful learning.

Nevertheless, it has been noted that this approach still has a few aspects that could be further improved in order to achieve greater success. During this study, it was found that the students find it very hard to interpret poetry, which in turn makes it hard for them to understand the chemistry topics conveyed by the poem. Conversely, there are not that many available poems that explore science topics, or chemistry in particular, and most of them are written in a foreign language, which demands that they are first translated by the teacher because most students are not very comfortable interpreting texts written in a language other than their own.

There seems to be a general understanding that there is no panacea or universal solution to the teaching of chemistry: even though this approach was successful in several ways, we must consider that if the artistic and literary expressions are not familiar forms of expression and are not valued enough by the students, the strategy will be unlikely to succeed. But, on the other side, for those indifferent youngsters, whose interests are still in early stages of development, these new and alternative strategies might be valuable options to attract their attention and interest.

The design of this pedagogical intervention strategy has allowed the authors to look at the teaching and learning of chemistry from a different angle. Considering the teacher's perspective, we believe that the chemical interpretation of the poem (shown in Table 1) allowed comparisons and analogies regarding the subjects explored which might be especially relevant to the teaching of chemistry.

In sum, it was found that using a poem as a model and stimulus for the production of other artistic materials centered on chemistry has shown to be a very attractive pedagogical strategy, because it not only motivates the students and enhances meaningful learning, but is also a dynamic and enriching way of teaching for the teachers.

Future projects

We believe that the results that we reached with this study already raise new questions and suggest future research topics. Thus, we stress the intention of assessing the impact of exploring chemistry poems in Portuguese language and English language classes in order to familiarize the students with different ways of expressing science, trying to eliminate difficulties of interpretation of the poems and trying to assess its impact in the learning of chemistry.

Furthermore, new questions arise that could foster future research on how we should articulate the academic and non-academic interests of the students with the main learning channels. For instance, it will be interesting to find out if those who care about literature could find in the exploration of poems about chemistry an invitation to learn and understand chemistry. Or if this is a dialectical process that accepts the diversification of strategies by its own right as a source of self-knowledge for the students and, at the same time, as a way of exploring the world.

We reach the end of this reflection with encouraging signs that inspire us to conduct future research that will assess new pedagogical strategies involving chemistry and literature.

Appendix 1: questionnaire “Chemistry with poetry”


The questionnaire includes a set of questions about your opinion on your learning experience as you explore chemistry through poetry and engage in creative and pedagogical projects.

There are no wrong or right answers; we just want your serious and truthful opinion.

The questionnaire is confidential and anonymous.

Please, answer the following questions by putting an “X” on the number that best fits your opinion, using a scale of 1 to 6 (where 1 means strongly disagree and 6 means strongly agree). In the last question you will be able to submit comments and suggestions about the implementation of this pedagogical strategy.

1. Do you think that the poems were relevant to the chemistry topics covered? 1 2 3 4 5 6
2. Do you think that the poems were easily understood? 1 2 3 4 5 6
3. Do you think that the use of poetry made it easier for you to understand the chemistry topics covered? 1 2 3 4 5 6
4. Was it fun learning chemistry with poetry? 1 2 3 4 5 6
5. Did the projects developed, following the exploration of the poems, contribute to the learning of topics not covered in class? 1 2 3 4 5 6
6. Do you believe that you have committed yourself to the activities proposed? 1 2 3 4 5 6
7. Did this activity enable you to get more in-depth knowledge about other subjects? 1 2 3 4 5 6
8. How do you think this activity could be improved?
Thank you very much for participating!


The authors gratefully acknowledge all relevant suggestions from Luciano Moreira, which greatly contributed to improve the quality of this work.


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