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UW Researcher, Colleagues Use Poetry to Promote Science

October 4, 2018
woman lying in the grass
Bethann Garramon Merkle, an associate research scientist with the Wyoming Migration Initiative on the UW campus, co-wrote “Poetry as a Creative Practice to Enhance Engagement and Learning in Conservation Science,” which was published in the Oct. 4 edition of BioScience. (Bethann Garramon Merkle Photo)

Creativity is crucial in successful scientific inquiry, to communicate science in compelling ways and to enhance learning. Poetry is one creative approach that can assist with scientists’ engagement and learning, say researchers, including one from the University of Wyoming.

Bethann Garramon Merkle, an associate research scientist with the Wyoming Migration Initiative on the UW campus, co-wrote “Poetry as a Creative Practice to Enhance Engagement and Learning in Conservation Science,” which was published in the Oct. 4 edition of BioScience. To read the paper, click here.

BioScience is a monthly, peer-reviewed, scientific journal that is published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

According to the authors’ research, science creativity can be both practiced and enhanced to strengthen conservation science professionals’ efforts to address global environmental challenges. In the study, the researchers explore how poetry is one creative approach that can further conservation scientists’ engagement and learning.

“We draw on evidence from peer-reviewed literature to illustrate benefits of integrating science and poetry, and to ground our argument for the growth of a science-poetry community to help conservation scientists develop skills in creative practices as a component of professional development,” Garramon Merkle and her colleagues say.

She adds that Wyoming has “a significant heritage of well-respected poets, as well as a recognized role in national and international poetry spheres.”

“We also have world-class science research -- conducted at UW and throughout the state -- that helps answer citizens' questions and makes discoveries that are important to people and the planet,” Garramon Merkle notes. “Data indicate that connecting the two -- science and poetry -- can lead to more creative science research and innovative solutions to pressing problems.”

Garramon Merkle came to UW as a creative writing student from Choteau, Mont.

Her co-authors on the paper were: Christina Lux, Center for the Humanities at the University of California-Merced; Patrick Goff, Beaumont Middle School, Kentucky; Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, Department of Biosciences at Swansea University, United Kingdom; Samantha Oester, Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University, Fairfax County, Va.; Natalie Sopinka, Canadian Science Publishing, Ontario; and Anna Zivian, Ocean Conservancy, Santa Cruz, Calif.

In the paper, they present examples from literature as well as two short poetry exercises for scientists to draw upon when considering writing poetry or deciding on forms of poetry to include in their practice.

They say current interdisciplinary dialogue generally perpetuates the ideology that scientists conduct science and artists create art. However, research and experience show that scientists -- and society more broadly -- benefit from scientists creating works beyond their discipline, the researchers conclude.

“Our paper highlights research and classroom-based case studies that indicate poetry is a powerful tool for learning science and learning how to think and talk about science topics,” Garramon Merkle says. “With the advent of elementary science standards in Wyoming schools, strategies for integrating the arts and sciences are going to be more necessary and productive than ever. And, at the college level, poetry and science can work together to make science education more engaging and memorable, and even contribute to communication skills such as writing.”

woman holding bee specimen up to magnifier
Madi Crawford, a Newcastle botany and honors student, collected samples to estimate whether insects are attracted to the color of wind turbines. A recently published UW research paper says poetry is one creative approach that can assist with scientists’ engagement and learning. (UW Photo)

She notes that fairly recent collaborations at UW and beyond have demonstrated how compelling poetry can be as a mechanism for sharing science.

“And, as our paper points out, poetry isn't there just to make science ‘pretty,’” she adds. “Thinking creatively and, in novel ways, about your own science research can result in new approaches to explaining science results, and even new ways of doing science.”

UW’s Learning Actively Mentoring Program (LAMP) Director Rachel Watson agrees with the approach. LAMP is part of UW’s Science Initiative.

“This research encapsulates the many reasons that purposeful, mindful integration of creativity into science creates space for the reflective attention that the scientific process so desperately needs, but sometimes so demonstrably lacks,” Watson says. “I am inspired by the exercise in the research that was provided for poetry writing because I feel that it can be mindfully integrated into any science research-based class, but also into pedagogical training.”

Garramon Merkle says incorporating poetry in UW scientific research can be helpful for:

 -- UW faculty members looking for ideas for broader impact proposals within science-related grant applications.

-- Initiatives to enhance creativity and innovation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students and professionals, at UW and beyond.

-- UW faculty in departments including -- but not limited to -- English, Visual and Literary Arts, Haub School, College of Education, Science and Math Teaching Center, entrepreneurships through the College of Business, Native American Indian Studies and the Honors College, as well as the STEM disciplines, could benefit from this shared practice.

-- UW faculty members working to improve students' writing skills.

-- K-12 and university instructors looking for multidisciplinary curriculum ideas, which Garramon Merkle and her colleagues note is a scientifically documented-as-successful approach to teaching and learning.

-- Organizing activities in art museums, and literary and writing festivals throughout the state and nation.

The researchers say there is considerable evidence that using creativity through poetry writing, reading or speaking can develop, maintain and enhance empathic and innovation skills.

“Considering the challenges humanity faces right now -- and Wyoming is not immune -- synthesizing disciplines to stimulate innovation, like we are resuggesting in this paper, is not only a good idea. It's an urgent one,” Garramon Merkle says.

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