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When rhyme meets reason

Graham Mort brings a touch of poetry to the science lab

What do poetry and science have in common? And how can a poet make science teaching more creative? These questions led to a scheme that involved sending a poet into classrooms in Shropshire, to foster a spirit of creativity within young scientists.

Under the banner "The Creative Scientist", funded by West Midlands Arts, Shropshire County Council and Telford and Wrekin council, I was appointed writer-in-residence for the project last autumn - a five-week stint in five primary and secondary schools co-ordinated by Neil Rathmell, creative arts adviser at Belmont Arts Centre, Shrewsbury. My brief was to act as a catalyst for Year 1, 6 and 10 pupils. The project also included a commission to write a new piece of work relating to science.

So, last October, I rented a cottage close to Shrewsbury and went back to school, at first joining pupils for a week of science lessons. It was a salutary experience. Every night for the first week I took home an armful of textbooks, trying to catch up with the other pupils, who regarded me with amused tolerance. My science education began with Year 1 "electricity and forces", took in Year 6 "light and materials", and ended in the periodic table, fractional distillation, genetics and enzymes with Year 10.

I was relieved to find the kind of narrow science education I experienced in a Sixties grammar school had been replaced by more open and investigative methods. As the radical American educationist John Holt says in How Children Learn: "The child is curious. He wants to make sense out of things, find out how things work, gain competence and control over himself and his environmentI To find out how reality works, he works on it."

In practice, SATs and GCSEs impose a much narrower definition of reality - of what is "right" or "wrong". School science, a branch of education trying to embrace investigative learning, is still rooted in a body of pre-established knowledge. While a Year 10 student might come up with a unique opinion on a Gillian Clarke poem, his or her contemporary in science is unlikely to come up with a new theory of genetics. Science teaching is incremental, with the same topics covered in increased depth at each level of learning.

I saw some excellent teaching, where ideas were pushed out towards what was imaginable, only to be pulled back to what was examinable. My own mission lay somewhere among the synthesis of language, knowledge and imagination. How did the language of mathematical signifiers relate to a language of verbal ones? How was science communicated? Was it possible to work on science and verbal language in an empirical way? Could the use of figurative language go beyond theorems and formulae and make scientific knowledge stick?

So much of science involves processes with invisible or obliquely manifested workings that you need imagination, if not faith, to grasp them. Einstein's E=MC2 is just as much the product of imagination as T S Eliot's The Waste Land.

The way to proceed was to experiment. With the infants we "built" poems from a self-developed language resource using the block- stacking game Jenga as a model of construction, which resonated with the theme of forces. Primary pupils made poems that explored shadows or mapped the journey of matter from the Big Bang to everyday artefacts.

Work in secondary schools included poems characterising the action of particular enzymes, film script scenarios exploring ionic bonding ("Honey, I Shrank the Potassium!"), and word games with genetic combinations that demonstrated the idea of heritability while also resolving into poems.

Group activities formed a vital part of the process, and a good grasp of science was a prerequisite for any artistic activity. We also used "verbal engineering" to overhaul and extend science knowledge. In secondary schools, it was possible to work backwards from ideas embedded in science teaching. The electrons in an atom are held in "shells" surrounding the nucleus. Is this a fact, literally described, or a metaphor for containment?

This work was paralleled by a project with the wider community. Here, I interviewed a range of people, from six-year-olds to adults, leading with the question: "What is electricity?" The results are a fascinating cocktail of scientific fact, error, and urban myth.

I'm now working with teachers and advisers to provide four days of in-service training at the Belmont Arts Centre next month. We'll take our ideas about the interaction between science and verbal arts further, suggesting new teaching strategies and promoting liaison between English and science. I'm also researching and writing a long poem on the theme of electricity for those Inset sessions. What is electricity? Well, it's electrons playing leapfrog, or a tube of footballs kicked together, or darkness shooting up your armI Graham Mort is a freelance writer and artist in education. Email: Arts Centre can be contacted at

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