How science teachers can use storytelling

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 continue our story:
There are probably 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 can be used to bridge that gap between theory and reality, by focusing the subject around 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 why, and the second is that we need to tell a story.” 
Atif Kukaswasdia, TEDx speaker

In a Labster simulation, for example, we are drawn into the game with a mission to help out our Grandmother who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, or to solve the mystery of why dead animals are washing up on shore in a lake.
The most typical type of storytelling is probably the case story.
We know case stories from the business world, where we’re given some background information on a company and introduced to a problem they’re facing. It’s then up to the student to solve that problem by applying their theoretical knowledge. In essence, this puts the student in the role of the storywriter, and lets them find the ending, all while actively learning about the subject.

Should stories simplify science?

It goes without saying that creating such case stories can be a bit more complicated in science education. Science is in essence based on facts, whereas stories are based on fiction, and so a point of concern for teachers can be that many details and concepts go lost in the use of a story.
For example, what if scientific words are lost when trying to communicate concepts in a simpler way? This is only a natural concern for teachers, as they are experts in their field, and are accustomed to using language that is detailed and precise.
However, a consequence of detailed language can be that the information becomes incomprehensible to a novice student. Does that make the use of details and precision worth it?
In reality, both the teacher and student can benefit massively from breaking down the information and serving it in a more simple way. This is not to say that is 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 text book, and the second is DeWitt’s re-worded version. Which one do you think the high school students understood better?
By building science education up around a simple story, details can be built up gradually, and students will find it easier to understand the information. This is possible when the fundamentals are already in place, and they can attach new knowledge to existing knowledge.
In that way, the simple story provides them with the context needed to understand more complex information.
By building the teaching up around a story that is based on real life, you can also always take the new learnings back to the why and keep reminding the students what the purpose of what they are learning is, and what they can use it for in real life.

Using the real scientists as the cases

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 very 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.

Using alternatives to traditional case stories

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, is by using tools such as Labster’s virtual labs.
See how our CTO, Michael Bodekaer, describes the use of storytelling in Labster’s simulations in the video below (or see the full interview here).

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

Building your own story

A final way to use stories in science education is of course to create your own narrative. For that, we’ve created a list of elements that your 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

In case you need a little inspiration for how to implement all this, take a look at Tyler DeWitt’s story about his favorite science subject: viruses and how they attack (you can fast-forward to 01.59 to dive straight into his story):

That brings us to 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 3 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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