Storylines in Our Science Classroom

The Next Generation Science Standards advocate for a shift in the way we teach science.  One of the primary shifts is prompting students to identify areas for scientific investigations, instead of simply introducing “Chapter 11.”  It’s not enough to tell students what they’re going to learn – it’s important that we provide a “why” for our scientific learning.  Storylines are specific experiences that anchor (and necessitate) further scientific exploration. Teachers can refer back to their narrative throughout the unit; they host the exploration, justifying our investigation of the way light behaves, the behavior of water permeating a leaf, the reason seasonal changes affect a population of wolves. As the Next Gen Science Storylines Project states:

Master teachers aim to incorporate scientific narratives: in order to begin a unit on Forces and Motion, perhaps Mr. Hendricks reads an article about a local football star with a severe concussion in last weekend’s game.  Maybe Mrs. Morse tells the students of a trip to South America that she’s canceled due to the Zika virus outbreak, which prompts students to question the behavior of viruses and instigates their cell unit. These narratives grab students’ attention and exemplify the way that the real world prompts real science. 

But lately, we’ve been wondering: Why stop with real-life examples?  What if we explored fiction as a framework? What if we really did create storylines? 

Consider Mr. Edwards, who begins the Genetics unit with, “Open up your textbooks to Chapter 11 and prepare for guided note-taking.” Now imagine Ms. Gibbons who opens a novel and begins reading an excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, a popular dystopian book in the Divergent series:“Is this science fiction or science fact?”  Ms. Gibbons asks. “Can we genetically determine a person’s emotions? Is this possible today, or could it be?”

Instead of copying down notes, students generate questions about the limitations of genetics, potentially drawing in larger questions of ethics, eugenics, and subjectivity. They hit walls in their knowledge, identifying areas in need of investigation. This necessitates further exploration and guidance from the teacher, who has created this narrative of inquiry upon which students can anchor their knowledge.

Fiction as a Framework: Why Not?

If the purpose of a storyline is to justify knowledge and promote student advocacy for what we’re learning, what limits us from bringing in the fiction that our kids are reading in other classes or absorbing through pop culture?  If the purpose of a storyline is to engage our students and anchor their scientific exploration, why don’t we use something that already engages them?

Here are a few other reasons why fiction provides a rich framework for storylines in the science classroom:

  • Fiction is accessible and low-stakes. As some students don’t self-identify as “scientists,” a fictitious scenario lowers the stakes of right-or-wrong dichotomy. Students may be more willing to explore in an environment that hasn’t already been solved.  Asking students to evaluate the scientific plausibility of the skin-healing salve in The Hunger Games poses less risk for students afraid of appearing incorrect.  It also lets them act and think like scientists!  Real science is creative, exploratory, and full of incorrect hypotheses.
  • Fiction offers cross-curricular connections! Perhaps the students will read Brave New World for Language Arts summer reading – instantly, you have a shared experience that your students will connect with when they walk in your door, and a ready-made platform for exploring genetics, air travel, ecology, energy, and onwards.  If not a novel, create a class culture surrounding scientific phenomena in Star Wars, which also allows the Social Studies teacher to explore themes of class systems, poverty, and language distinctions. Students can more clearly see that all subjects are interwoven in real life.
  • Fiction is moldable by you, the teacher – it can accommodate your classroom pursuits. If you wish to introduce a physics problem with Mark Watney’s rover in The Martian, what if it simply happened on Sol 62? Sure, it’s not in the book, but it’s just as likely to have occurred as what is on page 213. Perhaps you wish to explore atmospheric sciences on a neighboring planet in the Star Wars galaxy – perhaps the planet was never actually discussed in the series, and now you have an imaginary world upon which to explore!
  • Fiction allows for a multitude of projects, both formative and summative. After reading The Martian, Amy Scheer’s ninth graders at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) engineer a “Mars rover” and, using Python programming language, plan a route around the school akin Watney’s trip across Mars’ landscape. Students are encouraged to plan, test, fail, and revise their designs, just as scientists (and the fictitious Watney) practice real design engineering. Whether it’s designing a more efficient Storm Trooper helmet or providing a scientific explanation for the magical Platform   9 ¾, the world of fiction affords a wealth of creative, engaging problems and projects to present to your students.

Students at MICDS must simulate Mark Watney’s Mars journey by using Python programming language to carry their rover on a course throughout their STEM facility.

  • Fiction can span multiple units. Perhaps you use Harry Potter’s year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as a backdrop to your entire year’s curriculum. Perhaps you explore chemistry using Professor Snape’s Potions class, and later explore Newton’s Laws of Motion  in terms of Quidditch.  Perhaps you ask students to offer scientific explanations for otherwise “magical” events.  Again, the flexibility of the fictitious world is open to you — Alan McCormack, Professor of Science Education at San Diego State University, often shows his students his own “enchanted teapot” and asks students to “imagineer” real solutions for making the teapot “magical,” only revealing his true design after his students share their possibilities.

Alan McCormack gives students a teapot template, and through Design Engineering (“imagineering”), students create a teapot that will spout when shaken.

Our main goal as science teachers is to engage our students as scientists.  Whatever we can do to ignite their passion to investigate, explore, and experiment will create dynamic classrooms that our students will be excited to attend.  And let’s not forget a huge perk to engaging with fiction in your science classroom: your cool factor will exponentially increase!

We were inspired by sessions at the National Science Teachers’ Association Conference (#NSTA16) for this post. Thank you to the following presenters:

Alan McCormack of San Diego State University is a science workshop facilitator and former NSTA President who has presented on Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, and other magical illusions for science teachers. He has presented at previous NSTA conferences and has just returned from the Brain and Learning Conference in Orlando, Florida.  You can catch his next presentation, “Dazzling Deceptions: Discrepant Events for Science,” at the NSTA STEM Conference in Denver, Colorado, this July. Reach out to him at [email protected] for more resources or to invite him to present!

Amy Scheer has taught math at the high school level for a number of years and is currently the JK – 12 Math Chair at MICDS in St. Louis where she works with faculty in math and science to create an integrated STEM curriculum and to explore new pedagogies to help advance STEM education.  Amy has presented nationally on topics such as curriculum revision, assessment and using technology to enhance curriculum in the classroom. Join Amy and other featured speakers this summer at the Summit for Transformative Learning, a conference designed to bring expert and classroom practitioners together to explore ways to enhance and maximize student learning. Visit the conference site to sign up, or email Amy at [email protected].

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