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CMU student Elizabeth O’Donnell uses poetry to explore science.

Blending art and science at CMU

Elizabeth O’Donnell uses poetry to explore scientific concepts in a new way

Contact: Ari Harris

On Mars there is a merry-go-round,
Carnival music cast into ether to scatter through the asteroid belt.

There are probably fireworks on Neptune
Set to the solar system’s intergalactic anthem.

Several stars away, a few light year blinks,
A thoughtful ear might hear a car crash, the dislocation of a shoulder.

Hubble, aging in ancient expanse, no doubt squints.
She struggles to focus, senile metal heaving in its last orbits.

— Excerpt from “Space in Sound,” a poem CMU student Elizabeth O’Donnell created using poetry prompts she designed to help high school students explore science and nature.

Are you left-brained or right-brained? Do you focus on facts or explore abstracts? Would you rather conduct an experiment or write a poem?

Growing up, Central Michigan University senior Elizabeth O’Donnell struggled to answer those questions.

“In high school, there’s an expectation that you’ll fit into one group or another or that you have to be just one sort of person. Coming to CMU allowed me to pursue the things that made me the happiest even if they didn’t seem to go together,” she said.

The poet, self-described science nerd and future teacher developed a way to use her love of language to help high school students explore challenging scientific concepts.

Artist, scientist or both?

O’Donnell fell in love with science in elementary school. She liked to visit the hands-on science museum near her hometown of Boyne City, Michigan, and to spend time outdoors learning about nature.

“I was obsessed with the beauty I found. I’d see iridescent colors on the inside of a shell and want to know what made it possible. I wanted to learn the science behind it,” she said.

When she got to high school, an inspiring teacher led her to pursue a career as a science teacher. She received a full-tuition Centralis scholarship and came to CMU to study secondary education with a concentration in integrated science and chemistry.

But then she fell in love with the language of poetry.

As a sophomore, O’Donnell enrolled in a creative writing class with English language and literature faculty member Robert Fanning. He encouraged her to explore her talents for writing and connected her with poets who were combining elements of science in their work. She was hooked immediately.

“Science is the foundation of everything in our world, and there is something almost spiritual about the aesthetics of science. Being a part of the Honors Program gave me the time and resources to explore that idea more deeply,” O’Donnell said.

She joined Wordhammer and the Poets Collective, two registered student organizations focused on poetry, which surrounded her with a new community of like-minded writers. She submitted poems to CMU publications such as the Central Review and the Temenos Journal.

O’Donnell grew in confidence and skill and served as the first student poet of the 2018 Wellspring Literary Series. The poetry reading series, founded and facilitated by Fanning and co-sponsored by Art Reach of Mid Michigan, allowed O’Donnell to share the stage with award-winning poet Marc Hudson.

“Performing in front of an audience is an incredible experience, and it’s an honor to take the stage and open for a published poet,” she said.

Bringing two worlds together

O’Donnell realized that the combination of challenging scientific concepts with poetry might help other students.

“Writing about space through poetry allows me to take a huge, mind-blowing concept and translate it into something more relatable through words and images. If we can help young students approach those ideas in a way that feels more comfortable to them, they will be more interested in studying science,” she said.

Working with Fanning, O’Donnell developed a series of creative prompts to encourage children to think about challenging scientific ideas through words and images. She reached back to her high school science teacher and arranged to lead his current students through an exercise to help them think differently about the human circulatory system.

The idea was a success, and O’Donnell plans to use the prompts again in her student teaching this spring.

“As a teacher, my job in the classroom is to help my students connect with the concepts I’m sharing. Being able to connect to the things the student likes establishes a common ground to explore those concepts.”

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