Science and Storytelling: The use of stories in science education

Last year, I had a chance to speak at TEDxQueensu . My basic premise is this: Science is awesome, but science needs to do a better job of communicating that awesomeness to non-scientists. We’re sitting on the frontiers of human knowledge, and yet we cannot get others as excited about this issue that we’re very, very passionate about. It’s something I’ve touched upon within the world of science fiction, by having celebrity spokepeople for science and even by using humour to engage non-scientists. After reading up on inspirational leadership, I realized that the way we can communicate science more effectively is to cast off the typical way we view science for academic purposes (ie the peer reviewed manuscript/IMRaD) and consider it as part of a whole.

We need to tell the story of science – the background, ie. why your research happened, and then the consequences, ie. why your research matters. An academic presentation works very well when your audience knows the background to the area, but when talking to non-scientists, or even those outside of your immediate area of study, you have to take a step back and tell them why the research even matters before delving into your specific study.

Since I gave the talk above, there have been several more (high profile) events held. There was a panel held at ASU for their Origins Project which featured such scientific superstars as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the panel spoke about the “the stories behind cutting edge science from the origin of the universe to a discussion of exciting technologies that will change our future.” In addition, Tyler DeWitt spoke at TEDxBeaconStreet about making science fun, and his own experiences as a high school science teacher.

And of course, there are many books on scientific discovery, including The Ghost Map, describing the cholera outbreak occurring by the Broad Street Pump (described here on PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives), and Inside the Outbreaks, describing the work of the Epidemiologic Intelligence Service of the CDC. Both use stories to illustrate what was going on, and more importantly, engage the reader. For the general public, or those who may want to just get a general “feel” for a subject, this works very well.

Now here’s where things get tricky. I’ve talked about telling a story, but you can’t use your typical approach to storytelling when it comes to *teaching* science. Communicating with a non-science audience, ie those who pick up a book on science at their local Chapters/Indigo/WH Smith, is very different to engaging students at the secondary or post-secondary level. Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible? As Stephen Klassen from the University of Manitoba says:

“Science stories differ from stories in the humanities in at least two critical aspects, namely, the purpose of the story and the role of the reader or listener. The central purpose of the science story is, after all, to improve the teaching and learning of science, not to just entertain or to communicate a message as is the case for a story in the humanities.” (Klassen, 2009)

The article then delves into the specifics of what a scientific narrative should include. This includes literary devices such as “event-tokens,” ie the key incidents that you structure your story around, and the role of the narrator, who decides what is and what isn’t important, as well as the order in which facts are revealed. I won’t go into those here, but if you’re interested, I thoroughly recommend giving the article a read.

Perhaps one of the big criticisms many may have at this point is that teachers simply don’t have time to come up with stories, and that is a fair criticism to raise. However, this is changing, and websites such as “The Story Behind the Science” are creating stories that can be used by teachers to help illustrate specific concepts. Most importantly, these stories are being evaluated to ensure they are effective teaching tools. I particularly like the point raised by DeWitt above, where he mentions creating a Wikipedia-like site where teachers can put up their class ideas, and others can use those in their own teaching. As Open Access publishing and Creative Commons licensing becomes more prevalent and more well known, this should encourage people to put their content online where others can benefit from their experience and creativity, while still retaining credit for their ideas.

At the end of the day, the idea of a scientific story is an interesting one, and it is one that famous science communicators have used to great effect with the public. However, we have to ensure that the focus of these stories remains the science, and that does not get hidden beneath narrative fiction.

Klassen, S. (2009). The construction and analysis of a science story: A proposed methodology. Science & Education, 18(3-4), 401-423.
Clough, M. P. (2011). The story behind the science: Bringing science and scientists to life in post-secondary science education. Science & Education, 20(7-8), 701-717.

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10 Responses to Science and Storytelling: The use of stories in science education

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  7. This is a truly inspiring video. I thought back to my profession right now and realized that indeed, whenever someone asked me what is it I do, I began explaining to them exactly WHAT I do, and it got them bored. I will definitely follow the advice and see what happens from there on. This is a pretty definitive topic – essentially anything you do must be defined with the “why”. Thus – your life itself. o.O I may go a bit too far with this, but I really got myself thinking here… 10x :)

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  9. Barry Kort says:

    See The Bardic Arts for a scientific model of StoryCraft.

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