Using Poetry to Promote Science

April 22 is internationally recognized as Earth Day, and the theme for Earth Day 2015 is “It’s Our Turn to Lead.” With April also being National Poetry Month National Poetry Monthin the United States, it’s an excellent month to look at the how the interface between art, science and poetry can be used to inspire interest in issues facing the natural world.

Leadership comes in many sizes, rhythms and rhymes.  Perhaps one of the most publicized issues of Earth science is climate change. In 2013 and 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on climate projections and related vulnerabilities.

The report placed emphasis on the urgency of the problem and the need for action. But dense and thousands of pages long, the report posed an unwieldy read for average members of the public. Ocean climate scientist Gregory Johnson, in an attempt to distill his own thoughts, created haiku poems to describe the key points of IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers.

Encouraged by his daughter, Johnson then illustrated each poem and shared them on the Internet as a creative and accessible window into key climate science findings.

Climate Change Science 2013, Haiku. Image Credit: George Johnson

Climate Change Science 2013, Haiku. Image Credit: George Johnson

Johnson is not the only scientist to turn poet. When British biologist Joanna Tilsley (alias xYz) wrote her science-themed poems, now published in the collection “30 Days,” she was responding to the National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) challenge to craft 30 poems in as many days. The poems describe scientific phenomena or questions and are accompanied by illustrations. Their purpose is to convey the wonder and mystery associated with science.

Spoken words also can provide a powerful tool to inspire interest in science.  GZA of the band Wu-Tang Clan is working on a solo album called “Dark Matter.”

The album will use rap as an entryway to scientific concepts. As described in his 2014 Tedx Teen talk, GZA feels that rhyme cycles could be used in education: Hip hop appeals to a young crowd in terms of interest and rhyme offers an effective way to commit information to memory.

With this purpose in mind, GZA established a partnership with Dr. Christopher Emdin of Columbia University Teacher’s College and created a project to use hip hop and rap to enrich science curriculum in New York City high schools and improve test scores, particularly for minority students.

Part of this project was the initiation of Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., which stands for “Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science.” The BATTLES are competitions where high school students write and perform their own raps on a subject within the sciences — from physics to biology to astronomy. Student performances from 2013 can be found on YouTube.

Poetry and science have informed each other for centuries, and examples like those provided by current scientists, writers, and rappers offer a reminder of creative possibilities for leadership.

You can share your own Earth-inspired poetry in the comments or by emailing Earthzine science writer Elise Mulder Osenga.