How can science teachers use storytelling? (Part 2)

First, in case you missed it, read part 1 of this storytelling article where we share everything you need to know about storytelling in education and why it works. If you’ve already read it, let’s go one step further to understand the importance of storytelling in science.

There are probably more than a few students out there who haven’t stopped to think: “Why do I need to learn this, and what am I ever going to use it for?” at some point in their education.

It’s the teacher’s task to answer that question, since the connection between theory and its usefulness in reality is pivotal to a student’s engagement and understanding of the subject.

Storytelling in science can be used to bridge that gap between theory and reality, by focusing the subject on why students are learning what they’re learning.

“There are two things that science needs to do: The first is we need to talk about the why, and the second is that we need to tell a story.” 

Atif Kukaswasdia, TEDx speaker

Putting an emphasis on the why, such as through a case story, can give students the context they need to fully immerse themselves in learning. In a Labster simulation, for example, we are drawn into a game with a mission to help our grandmother who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, to solve the mystery of why dead animals are washing up on a shore, or to lead a cancer pharmacology project from start to finish. 

By putting the student in the role of the storywriter, and letting them find the ending, all while actively learning about the subject, it can have a positive impact on their education.

That’s why it’s important that educators understand the power of a story. So, how can teachers use storytelling in science to put students in the driving seat of their theoretical understanding and improve learning?

1. Simplify complex science theories 

It goes without saying that creating such case stories can be a bit more complicated in science education. Science is based on facts, whereas stories are based on fiction and there needs to be a balance between the two. The detailed language and concepts in science can become incomprehensible to a novice student, yet it’s important to portray the hard facts too. 

In reality, both the teacher and student can benefit massively from breaking down information and serving it in a simpler way. This is not to say that it should be dumbed down. Instead, it should be perceived as a way to create a foundation for learning.

Consider the two following examples of scientific communication (taken from Tyler DeWitt’s brilliant TED talk for science teachers):

“Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral nucleic acid into a bacterium.”


“These viruses can start to make more copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium.”

The first text is from a high school textbook, and the second is DeWitt’s re-worded version. Which one do you think the high school students understood better?

By building education through storytelling in science, details can be built up gradually, and students will find it easier to understand the information. A simple story provides them with the context needed to understand more complex information.

By building teaching around a story based on real life, you can also always take the new learnings back to the why and keep reminding students what the purpose of what they are learning is, and what they can use it for in real life.

2. Show the people behind the science 

One way to build up a case story is by revolving it around truthful tales of how specific scientists struggled in acquiring the knowledge and information that the students are learning.

Using the scientists’ struggles as stories for teaching has been shown to have positive effects on engagement and learning. Specifically, it has been shown to increase students’ interest in science, improve their problem-solving abilities, and help them create perceptions of scientists as hardworking individuals.

A source of inspiration for creating these kinds of stories could be The Story Behind the Science and, for example, their story of Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. We also do this in our blog on cellular respiration activity.

By focusing on storytelling in science in this way, teachers can harbor the benefits of engagement and learning. 

3. Provide a gamified and immersive learning experience

Another way to get real-life context attached to the learning, and at the same time take individual learning speeds and learning styles of students into account, using tools such as Labster’s virtual labs

Virtual labs provide an immersive experience for students, allowing them to be fully invested in the story from start to finish. Students’ learning outcomes improve because they engage them with game-based elements that inspire them to explore science inside the 3D environment of an immersive simulation.

Not only do the virtual labs provide a connection between theory and real life with a storyline, characters, fun elements and detailed settings, they also empower students by letting them play a game, learn at their own pace and in their own way (e.g. watching 3D animations vs. looking at still images and reading theory).

4. Build a new story

A final way for science teachers to use storytelling in science education is, of course, to create their own narrative. For that, we’ve created a list of elements that a case story should contain:

  • A detailed setting (think: location and timing)

  • Relevant, interesting and relatable characters

  • A properly structured plot with a correct sequence of events

  • A problem, struggle or dilemma (very important for emotional engagement)

  • A dash of fun and humor every now and then (perhaps consider adding some gamification elements)

  • Real-life relevance and applicability

  • An open ending that leaves the students in a problem-solving state of mind

Final tips for storytelling in science 

Now we’re at the end of our story. In case you made it all the way through our little tale, we'd like to provide you with a good old fashioned happy ever after in the shape of three magical take-aways:

  1. Stories create context and engage students on an emotional level. For that reason, facts should never stand alone, but always be wrapped in a warm blanket of fiction.

  2. Stories should answer the question that pretty much any student has had at some point in their education: “Why am I learning this, and what can I use it for in real life?”

  3. You can use storytelling in science education by telling the stories of real scientists, by using tools that integrate storytelling, or by creating your own stories about happy little bacteria, smug viruses and other fantastic beasts of the science universe.

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