Writing Stories Builds Scientific Literacy

From Environmental Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin and Jason Morris, Project Leaders

THE RESEARCH: Ritchie, S. M., Tomas, L., & Tones, M. (2011). Writing stories to enhance scientific literacy. International Journal of Science Education, 33(5), 685–707.

pe02463_International studies have uncovered an unfortunate trend: students are becoming less interested in science. Especially at the middle school level, students are finding it difficult to become excited about science. And, according to this study’s authors, that’s not just a problem for students’ performance on tests: “This is an important issue for science educators because disengaged students are less likely to become informed future citizens who use natural, scientific, and technological resources responsibly for a sustainable future.”

Increasingly, researchers are thinking about scientific literacy in terms of not only what students know, but also how they apply what they know. This study examined whether one technique—writing stories with embedded scientific concepts—could help students learn new concepts and also apply them in novel settings, thereby building their interest in science.

The authors point to previous research that suggests that writing tasks, including imaginative writing, can improve student learning and motivation. They considered a recent qualitative study in which fourth-grade students wrote an ecological mystery. That study found that students were engaged and interested, built scientific knowledge, and improved their literacy skills. The authors of this paper took that idea further by developing a short-story format (which they suggest is easier to implement) and devising a more rigorous research design to test the effects of the approach.

In this study, students completed writing tasks that involved the soci0scientific issue of biosecurity (namely, the threat of introduced species). The authors argue that socio-scientific issues are ideal for building applied scientific literacy because these issues blend scientific concepts and current social issues. Within the context of learning about issues such as biosecurity, students interpret data, evaluate claims, analyze and generate arguments, ad assess (and sometimes develop their own) moral viewpoints.

Conducted in Australia, the study involved two sixth-grade science classes of 28 and 27 students. One group served as a control group and received the standard curriculum on microorganisms.The other class served as a treatment group, and in addition to the standard curriculum, completed the writing task. Both groups completed an online questionnaire, the BioQuiz, that helped researchers gauge students’ knowledge, interest, confidence, and scientific literacy. The researchers also followed up with interviews

The writing task was to write short stories, which the researchers called BioStories. These stories were based on writing prompts that depicted a scenario (for example, the late Steve Irwin and a young girl discuss the need for quarantines at a customs checkpoint). A project website provided links to relevant scientific information, and instructors asked students to incorporate that information into their stories.

The researchers generated three key findings about the students who completed the writing project:

•The students became more familiar with and knowledgeable about biosecurity and related biological concepts than the students in the control group.

•The students’ interest in science improved significantly more than the students in the control group.

• The students’ scientific content scores for their writing samples improved significantly, which demonstrates an improvement in their derived sense of scientific literacy.

Interviews with the students supported these findings, with the students expressing enjoyment about learning new things, researching information, and writing their stories. In the words of one student: “It was kind of interesting writing about something I really enjoyed.”

The researchers found the results to be promising and encourage middle school teachers to use these writing  techniques. But further research, particularly with larger sample sizes, could confirm the results. And more research could help clarify which is more important: the topic or  the writing approach itself.


THE BOTTOM LINE:  Research and practice have suggested that middle school students can be difficult to engage through traditional science curriculum. This study tested a novel approach in which students used writing  prompts to create original short stories that incorporated scientific information on a relevant socio-scientific topic. The researchers concluded that this approach can help students learn scientific concepts, become more interested in science, and improve their derived sense of scientific literacy. The researchers encourage middle school science teachers to adopt the approach where appropriate.