by Brian “Fox” Ellis
I learned early on that storytelling is one of the most important tools for teaching science. If you think about it . . . what is science? Science is an attempt to understand the universe.
A well-told science story does three important jobs: It brings facts to life; it makes abstract concepts concrete; and through the virtual reality of storytelling, it walks listeners through the process of scientific inquiry.
Children are curious about information and science facts if they’re presented in an intriguing way. Historically, teaching science education meant spending an inordinate amount of time memorizing facts. Facts are important, and storytelling is one of the most effective ways of delivering them. But if you stop with facts you are not teaching science. Science is a verb, an activity, not simply a body of knowledge.
Ideas such as the food web, evolution, the water cycle, and animal adaptation are examples of the “big picture” ideas that are critical to understanding modern science. But if you stop with concepts, you still are not teaching science. You are building a necessary conceptual framework for ordering and understanding facts. Again, science is something you do, a way of asking questions and seeking answers.
Storytelling can be used to introduce or implement all of the science standards. Though it is obviously a prime example of language arts and science communication skills, I often include mathematics problems in the science stories to emphasize the importance of mathematics in science education.
Science-process skills are the methods or strategies that scientists employ to discover and understand the story of the universe. A good story involves the listener in many of the strategies of gathering the facts of the story, making predictions about the outcome, and checking their hypothesis against the unfolding details of the tale. Also, you can use a story to make abstract concepts personal and tangible. Important facts can be conveyed within a dynamic context so the facts stick; they have more meaning and impact
Let me share a short story that will show you what I mean.
Starting with a Story
When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my favorite biology professors was a man whom I only remember as George. At 94 years old he taught an occasional class. Because his father had also been a biology professor at Oberlin College, George had grown up on campus. Botany was his specialty and he spent his entire life studying the flora and fauna of northeastern Ohio.
Once a month on Sunday afternoon, George led a hike in the arboretum. Every month that I could be there, I was. He meandered through the arboretum telling stories about whatever plant caught his fancy.
One Sunday afternoon as we were walking in the flood plain of Plum Creek, he stopped next to an ancient cottonwood. This huge tree was almost a meter wide and maybe 30 m tall. He leaned against this giant tree and said . . .
When I was a seven-year-old boy, my father told me that cottonwood trees had a unique characteristic: If you break off a branch and stick it in the mud, it will sprout.
When my father told me this I thought, “Poppycock! If you break off a branch it is dead. A dead stick will not sprout.” Note that I did not say this; I have more respect for my father than to openly dispute him without a bit of evidence, but I did not believe him.
A few weeks later I was walking through the arboretum when a huge storm blew in. I love those Midwestern summer thunderstorms. As the clouds roll across the Great Lakes they pick up steam, literally. You can see the dark clouds gather in the distance as the winds start to blow and you know the heavens are going to open. Most kids might run home, but not me. I love the crack of lightning, the roar of thunder, and the warm rains that pummel the earth.
As I was walking along Plum Creek a strong gust of wind snapped off a branch from a cottonwood tree and it stuck in the mud. I thought, “Aha! This is my chance to prove my father wrong.” I came back each day for five days to gather evidence. Sure enough, after the third hot summer day it started to wilt. Because of the heat it was losing more water than it could absorb; evapo-transpiration is the scientific word for tree sweat. By the fifth day the leaves were curled. This branch was dead.
I went home and told my father he was wrong, and I had the proof. My father calmly listened to my interpretation of the facts. He said, “Son, you’re jumping to conclusions. You need to collect more data.” He told me to go back to that tree every day for the next 10 days, write down what I saw, and then tell him what I thought. Being a good son, and wanting to be a good scientist, I went back to that stick every day for 10 days.
Sure enough, after five more days the leaves started to uncurl. After seven days they started to plump up, to fill with fluid. By the 10th day the stick was indeed alive. I wanted to know why or how, so I carefully dug down around one side of the stick. I saw the small sprouting roots that had begun to grow. So, my father was right. Cottonwood do have a unique characteristic in their ability to sprout if you plant a stick in wet earth. It’s called regeneration. This is why cottonwood and willow are very important tools in preventing erosion. Streamside stabilization projects use willow posts and cottonwoods to help hold the stream banks in place.
I’ll never forget this idea because, you see, this giant cottonwood tree that we are standing next to is that cottonwood stick I watched wilt 87 years ago. Obviously, my father was right because that stick has grown into this huge tree.
And now having heard the tale, you will never forget that cottonwoods are able to regenerate either.
Making Stories Work for You
While the story is still fresh in your mind, make a short list of some of the facts you learned from this story. Which major concepts stand out for you? What are the science-process skills modeled in this study of the cottonwood? (At this point in a performance or workshop I often ask the audience to turn to a partner and answer these questions aloud. Obviously this is difficult in an article! But before you read on, please take a moment, read back over these questions, and make a list, at least a mental one.)
Through George’s story we have collected data about transpiration, root growth, and regeneration. We have formulated the hypothesis that sticks cannot regenerate and then designed an investigation to prove or disprove our theory. We have drawn an incorrect conclusion and collected more evidence to discover the truth. We have learned about trees but more importantly we have learned the process skills we need to learn about the unfolding drama that is the story of the universe. To paraphrase an old proverb, we have been given fish for supper and a net for catching all the fish we desire.
Think about it another way: Do you remember what your third-grade teacher said on November 4, nineteen hundred and . . . whenever? Do you remember stories that you heard when you were a child? If you have something important to say, put it into a story! Stories are like the glue that helps things stick. By giving facts an exciting context, they are more meaningful and more likely to be remembered.
Stories can make abstract theories concrete by bringing the listener into direct experience with the concept. The food web is not just an idea in a textbook; it is what you had for lunch. The water cycle flows through your blood streams. Storytelling engages listeners in the scientific process through the suspense and virtual reality that a good story creates. Students make discoveries along with the author or main character in the tale. You can tell stories from your life and experience, or you can dramatize important discoveries in the history of science. Even works of realistic fiction, if grounded in good science, can be written or told to illuminate a concept, introduce a chapter, or prepare students for a science experiment.
Having said all that, I’ll say something more: If you stop here, it isn’t enough.
Students must be energetically engaged in the activity of designing investigations and conducting research. After listening to this story about the cottonwood, what questions does it raise for you? How could you design a study that would find the answers? Go ahead and conduct this investigation. Remember: Science should be a verb!
After a recent retelling of this story, one student’s hand shot into the air immediately. When called upon he asked if this ability to regenerate was true of other trees. I asked what he thought. Several students’ hands shot up. They discussed different trees that might regenerate. One child said, “We could plant sticks from different trees and see if it was true.”
This is the other important role of storytelling in science education. A good story can motivate listeners or readers to want to become scientists. Think about it . . . who were the professors or teachers who inspired you to pursue this field? I’ll bet they were all good storytellers.
What are your stories? How can you share your discoveries in a way that could inspire and instruct your students? What are some of the classic tales of science that you remember from your education?
One of my favorite anecdotes from history is about the smallpox vaccination. Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids did not get pox. He found that they had been exposed to a germ called cow pox. This allowed milkmaids to develop an immunity so they were not affected by smallpox. From this discovery he developed a vaccine that saved thousands if not millions of lives.
Another of my favorites, though tragic, involved Marie Curie. She discovered radioactivity and opened the doors to the new science of nuclear physics. She would wear radioactive jewelry to dinner parties as a conversation piece. She later died from cancer because no one knew of the dangers of radioactivity. These are just two examples of classic tales you could tell.
In any discipline from astrophysics to molecular biology there are great stories about the scientists and their discoveries that you could dramatize. If you want to invigorate your teaching, tell your students the stories of science and the scientists that have inspired you. Tell the tales of the universe and your students will gain a deeper understanding of science facts, concepts, and methods.
Cherry, L. (1990). The Great Kapok Tree. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Deedy, C.A. (1991). Agatha’s Feather Bed. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
Ellis, B. (1997). Learning from the Land: Teaching Science Through Stories and Activities. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas Press.
Frasier, D. (1991). On the Day You Were Born. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Haven, K. (1994). Marvels of Science; 50 Fascinating 5-Minute Reads. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Leopold, A. (1970). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine Books.
Muir, J. (1994). The Wild Muir. Yosemite, CA: The Yosemite Association.
Reed-Jones, C. (1995). The Tree in the Ancient Forest. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications.
Yolen, J. (1987). Owl Moon. New York: Philomel Books.
What Makes a Good Science Story?
The most important scientists have all been good storytellers. Think about the scientists who have had the most lasting contributions to our understanding of scientific principles and the way things work. They have all been great writers and storytellers.
I believe that Rachel Carson changed the world in the first few pages of her landmark book Silent Spring (1962). Her modern parable about pesticides and the absence of songbirds in the spring helped to write new laws and radically transformed our relationship with the wild world. Her story took you inside the dilemma of a toxic environment and the long-term implications of what was then acceptable behavior. Her story, like the writings of Stephen J. Hawkins, Stephan Gould, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, and others, can give you a front-row seat on scientific discoveries.
Through their stories you feel like a voyeur, looking over their shoulders as they fumble through their mistakes and stumble upon the truth. A good science story needs this sense of immediacy, this in-the-moment insider’s view. Think about some passionate moment in your work as a scientist or science teacher. This passion and enthusiasm is important to the writing and telling of the tale.
Like all good stories you need well-defined characters. Who was there? Help us get to know something about these people and their motivations. You need a clear setting. Where were you? Describe the place using all of your senses; take us into this unique moment and specific location. You also need a dynamic plot with a sense of mystery or surprise. What happened? What led to your discovery? What did you learn from your mistake or success? Take us step by step through the questions that led to the research, the methods you used, and your “Aha” moment, when things clicked for you. Let the reader or listener share your sense of discovery. Use this outline to build your tale.
Recreate the moment. Exercise your science vocabulary while defining terms with explanatory clauses. If young children can memorize the Latin names of dinosaurs, they can certainly learn science vocabulary if they hear the words in a meaningful context. The truth is they will never learn these words unless they hear them in a meaningful context.
Interrupt the story to ask questions, engage the audience as guinea pigs in your experiment, or have the audience members choose a partner and tell each other their hypotheses.
When the story is over create a space for them to process the ideas, ask questions about the outcome, and internalize the concepts. Challenge them to design and conduct follow-up studies.
If the story motivates students to be active participants in scientific inquiry you know you have a great story!
How to Tell a Tale
What do storytellers do to bring the story to life? Who were your favorite professors, teachers, preachers, and politicians? What techniques did they employ to hold your attention?
Different personalities tell stories differently. The most important thing is to find a presentation style that suits your personality. With this said there are a few general techniques to consider:
• Use your voice to create characters, express emotions, and experiment with pacing, tone, accents, and sound effects.
• Use your body language, facial expressions, and gestures to convey the unspoken and reinforce the words you are speaking.
• Use your imagination and all five senses to be in the tale as you tell it. The more real you can imagine it, the more real it becomes for your audience even if it is a work of fiction.
• Involve the audience with simple rhetorical questions or complex sing-a-long songs. Within the body of the story allow them a chance to discuss a prediction or formulate a hypothesis.
Engage the audience as a partner in the telling of the tale. Use your voice, body, imagination, and the audience to tell, not read, the story. Beyond technique, the most critical element is your passion for the content. If you can tell the story in a manner that conveys this excitement, your contagious enthusiasm will be the key to a successful telling. [/password]