An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Michael Town, Upper School science and engineering teacher

Recently, I have been playing with a science education lens focused on storytelling. This lens has shown promise in fostering improved communication and critical thinking in student learning communities. 

I have two important influences in this effort. One teaching mentor motivated her students just prior to a writing assignment by saying, “Good writers get paid more.” The truth in her words was undeniable, particularly in white collar professions. Her goal in training good writers was to level the playing field. Early in my teaching career, I found myself pursuing the same goals, imitating her when at a loss for motivational hooks. After some reflection and repetition (i.e., practice telling the story), I now back up the claim with personal experiences as a research scientist. 

Another mentor, a research scientist, asks his colleagues things like: “What is the story you’re trying to tell here?” and, “What questions can we ask with these data?” He is a master at wringing every last claim from a data set. When a data set seems unsuitable for its original purpose, he turns the sourest of lemons into lemonade by reframing the story to tell. Part of his lemonade stand mojo comes from his knowledge of existing terrain and what people might care about.

Good (science) storytellers

Good storytellers can certainly be good writers, as my teaching mentor pointed out, though mainstream science storytelling has expanded beyond traditional forms (e.g., vlogs, punchy social media broadcasts). The basics underpinning these forms still require the science storytelling fundamentals of writing, oral explanations, and graphical or diagrammatic displays. Armed with good mechanics, a science storyteller then plugs into the format of a good science story, regardless of their chosen medium. 

Science stories have predictable formats because they are often information-dense. In fact, it can work against the storyteller to surprise an audience when telling a science story. I boil down a good science story to five predictable elements: 

  1. Da Hook: A motivating, evidence-based question.
  2. The context: Who did what, when, and how.
  3. The process: What did we do.
  4. The results: What did we find.
  5. What is next: What follows, why to care.
A (data-) rich and visceral experience

A good science story requires a data-rich experience to explain. A good data set is clean and relatively easy to collect. It is founded on a reproducible process. It can independently corroborate itself or prior results. It unambiguously answers questions that matter to people or the natural world. These claims hold true in and out of the classroom.

In setting my students up to tell good science stories, I often curate visceral experiences for them. The experience might be a physical experience when collecting the data itself (e.g. witnessing or experiencing a change in velocity or temperature). A physically visceral experience calibrates the corporeal scientist to the quantitative results. It facilitates their understanding of the results and their ability to communicate the story to others. Providing a physically visceral, data-rich experience to everyone in a classroom is an inherently equitable way to teach. Students are on the same playing field for at least a moment through a shared experience they must analyze.

The visceral experience might also be emotional. This emotion can come from surmounting obstacles presented by engaging with a meaningful, data-rich question. The trial and error of authentic science can lead to an emotional connection to the process and results. The potential of providing meaningful information to others can spring a well of resilience. All this emotion motivates good storytelling. Everyone knows when they are hearing a good story, but we might not always know why it is a good story. An emotional connection to the story is sometimes why.

How is it playing out?

I think my Honors Physics students are better and happier scientists since I’ve begun using this educational lens. They have more fun collecting the data, are more resilient to data collection and analysis obstacles, explain things to each other with passion and precision, and write better abstracts. Simply using the term storytelling in my science classroom disarms students, allowing them to engage a different part of their brains in a science classroom. It allows me to co-opt science-appropriate literary devices from my language arts colleagues like conflict/resolution, driving questions, context development, foreshadowing, repetition, and showing-rather-than-telling.

Similarly, students of this year’s Lakeside Summer Research Institute (LSRI 2020) are becoming better oral and visual communicators under this paradigm. Each morning of the LSRI 2020, two or more students present their current progress, running through the simple storytelling model above. Their daily storytelling practice not only improves their ability to communicate orally, but it also provides a rich platform for critical thinking. Repeating and incrementally adding to their stories, LSRI 2020 students are finding flaws in their own thinking simply by airing their thoughts. Even better, we are starting to develop a small science community where LSRI 2020 students in the ‘audience’ are helping the storyteller push their project forward through engaged listening and questioning. 

In the COVID-19 era

As many professional and educational communities move online, it becomes an ever more important skill to be able to tell and absorb stories effectively. However intentional we were about our practice in our brick and mortar classrooms, there was always organic and osmotic learning that we took for granted. This must be intentionally replaced online. Unfortunately, the online world places many constraints on efficient information transfer. Students have the same barriers to participation in class, but many barriers are now magnified. Last spring, I found that students shared easily in small groups through Zoom or Teams, yet the same students were reluctant to share when the group was larger than six or seven. 

What is next?

My work this summer telling stories with the LSRI 2020 cohort has helped me understand how I might scaffold storytelling (telling, listening, critiquing, refining) in a larger virtual classroom. Lots of adaptive planning is of course taking place this summer, and will continue throughout the upcoming school year. I’m excited about applying a refined storytelling model to blended and online instruction. I have no doubt that much of the success of the storytelling model in my classrooms was due to groundwork laid in arts and language arts classrooms across our campus, and indeed the city. What excites me is the potential for future symbiosis across disciplines at Lakeside. We’ll have to be intentional about it.

LSRI 2020 cohort blogs

Find more about the Lakeside Summer Research Institute here.