STEM Tuesday– Tiny Worlds (Microscopic/Nanotech)- Writing Tips & Resources



Figuring on Figurative language


“What is it?” A small hand lifts a treasure toward my face. It is brown and round and was found along our rocky trail.

“What does it look like?” I ask as I lower his hand back down to my student’s eye level.

“No, I mean, what is it called?” His earnest eyes plead with me to identify it.

“I suppose it has a name, but I’d rather take a closer look.”

He looks at me like I’m being difficult, which I guess I kind of am. I often sidestep the step of labeling the treasures my students find as we explore outdoors. Instead, I pull out two jeweler’s loupes and hand him one. Holding the magnifier to my eye, I squat and lean over his hand. “Wow! It looks like the surface of the moon!” I lean back to give him a turn. “What does it remind you of?”

Five minutes later, my young friend has a list of 15 analogies (a farmer’s field, skin with pimples, crumpled paper bag, a lonely egg, …) and is drafting a poem based on this natural artifact.

No longer stubbornly stuck on “What is it?” his brain was free to observe and associate, think and create, synthesize and evaluate analogies. Deep thinking, all thanks to looking closely and a few careful probes.

Changing Scale

That trick of changing scale and asking questions works wonders for both scientific and writing work. Something about diving into microscopic worlds allows our mind to operate at a different cognitive level. We are no longer harnessed to the prescribed method of investigation, the expected question, the quantitative answer.

Take a look at some of this month’s highlighted books and you’ll see how “looking little” results in impressive investigations and fantastic language. Stephen Kamer’s Hidden Worlds: Looking Through a Scientist’s Microscope provides a great example. You’ll see stalks of mold described as “a bouquet of exotic flower,” saltwater diatoms which will remind you of a kitchen sponge, a butterfly mouth that looks like a spring.

When I am trying to strengthen figurative language in my writing, I look little and practice by looking at the world through my jeweler’s loupes. It’s not microscopic, but it does the trick. I learned this technique from The Private Eye Project, a program that provides professional development for educators on thinking by analogy. Once I started seeing analogies in the micro world, I couldn’t stop seeing them in the macro world. Train your brain (and your students’) and whole new worlds will be opened to you.


Try it Yourself

Let’s practice together with this image.

What does it look like?


Hair released from a braid


Rain drops sliding down windshield – stormy nights

Earthworm trails

The color of mountains, dried cactus, shredded wheat cereal

Chocolate milk

Now you add on to the list.

Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.

Notice how some of my items reminded me of additional, tangential items? That’s great. That means the mind is reaching further.

Be sure to write all of your items down. There are NO WRONG ANSWERS!


Let’s do another:

What does it look like?

Teeth – dentist

Cogs on a machine

Tiny fingers

Bristly like my doormat

Hands – hands coming together in huddle for sports team, the cheer from friends and family

Rows in a farmer’s field

Color of straw

Paint brush tips

Toothpicks – corn on the cob, summers at the lake, Grandpa

Add on to the list. Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.



Now, do this one on your own:

What does it look like?

Keep going! There are no wrong answers here.

Take it Further

  • Get a magnifier. Any magnifier will work but I prefer Private Eye’s loupes because they fit to my eye, blocking out all other distractions.
  • Select an object from nature. The more mysterious the object, the better, but it can be something simple like a leaf.
  • Ask yourself what it looks like. Write at least 10 things. For additional prompts, compare it to objects in the kitchen, your bedroom, sports equipment. Concentrate on the texture, the color, or one section of the object.

Wondering why I avoid identifying these nature treasures? When I label items that closes one door of possibilities to your mind. For developing figurative language, we want our minds as wide open as possible.


Heather L. Montgomery loves to look little. Thinking by analogy helped her write books such as Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids (Charlesbridge), Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis Under the Waves (Millbrook Press), Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill (Bloomsbury). For more about Heather, her work and her educational programs, visit




This month, the Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files provide links to amazing images to spark even more analogies. Dive in and enjoy!


Extraordinary Microworld of Dennis Kunkel

Science as Art

Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Contest Winners (From 1944 – present)

Scanning Electron Microscope Photography of David Scharf

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  1. Great post, Heather!

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