Science and Story: How narratives can lift your lessons

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 20, 2013

I have an interesting guest post today on a subject that is dear to my heart — why narrative, or storytelling, is important in teaching science.  My former boss and mentor at the Exploratorium, Paul Doherty, always captivated teachers during his workshops by telling the most interesting stories about the history of science.  The crazy guy who invented polaroid sunglasses.  How the connection between electricity and magnetism was made.  Why “indigo” is in the rainbow, even though none of us can point to it.  (See my short podcasts from the Exploratorium, Science Teaching Tips, for Paul’s telling of the story about indigo, and for his telling of the electricity story).  When I left his tutelage, he gave me a wonderful book, The Flying Circus of Physics.
This is an encyclopedic volume of great stories, vignettes, and fun facts about all topics in physics, and has been invaluable when preparing new lessons.

These stories stick in your head, and give you a mental “hook” for science content.  It’s important not to forget the affective, emotional aspect of learning science.  Today’s guest post is about how to use Forensic Science to connect your science lessons to narrative and story.


Science and the story: how narratives can lift your lessons

by Shivani Lamba, director of Forensic Outreach, a UK-based outreach organization dedicated to introducing forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to sicnece education.

The shadowy project sites that informed the Manhatten project, Marie Curie’s home-grown (and carcinogenic) radioactivity laboratory, and the sheer chutzpah of Barry Marshall and the infamous heliobacter pylori-ridden petri dish: these are the personal accounts that fascinated science teachers during their own time at the elementary school lab-bench.

What’s most paradoxical is that these narratives are precisely the sort of thing that are rapidly being edged out of discussions within the science classroom; too often, science teachers report that a restrictive science curricula and the pressure to traverse quickly through their lesson plans limit this discourse (even though thirty years of research shows that stories are processed by the brain differently than other types of information).

Delivering our forensic-themed workshops and masterclasses for over ten years throughout the UK and EU has made one truth startingly clear to me: young scientists still need the story, those anecdotes that underpin the fundamental theories and concepts staring back at them lifelessly from their textbooks. To inspire our students to action, we need to acknowledge the human element in the scientific method.

So how is this achieved? With the looming shadows of standardized testing overhead, thematic teaching might seem idealistic at best — but can still be integrated rather easily into the practical session. Here are our tips for introducing a storyline to your hands-on science lessons:

1.  Make each experiment conducted a case study.

Consider ways to reinvent the context in which an original experiment was conducted. Learning about Newtonian motion, for instance, was rebranded as Nerf Gun ballistics within one of our more popular workshops: it involved students taking on the role of ballistics experts investigating a homicide recreating plausible projectile trajectories. If you can, introduce your practicals by encouraging students to take on particular roles within a broader narrative framework.

2.  Use props to create a truly immersive experience.

It’s not difficult isolate the reason CSI events are becoming increasingly popular among schools: children become engaged by the material due to their pre-existing associations with the discipline as it appears in film, television and published work. Take a cue from the crime scene tape: present your dissections as post-mortems; and encourage students to tackle physics equations by recasting them as mathematical geniuses scribbling with markers on a transparent board.

3. Reiterate the lesson objectives.

Ensure that the lesson isn’t lost in the framework: from the get-go, refer to specific curriculum statements that can be cross-referenced in their textbooks. You could introduce the practical by first referring to the chapter or unit aims the practical intends to cover (standard practice in most case, but sometimes overlooked in more creative sessions); or simply provide a list of curriculum-based questions that students answer in teams whilst working in practical groups.

For more information how we use storytelling in our programmes, check us out here.


Shivani Lamba is the Director of Forensic Outreach, an educational organisation which hatched from University College London’s Widening Participating programme in 2001 and retains an affiliation with the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. Since 2009, she has delivered tailored forensic science-themed workshops and masterclasses to cohorts in over one-hundred academic institutions and charities across the UK and EU including the American School of Paris and World ORT; and has designed and piloted over eighteen customised events for state comprehensives and public schools.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dallas Raby March 21, 2013 at 12:16 am

I’ve found this true for any subject, from music to religion to history. And, like all fundamental principles, it was thought of long ago. Jesus seldom taught without stories.

Holly Walter Kerby March 21, 2013 at 2:29 am

Yes, absolutely, of course this is true. We are suckers for stories because we think in stories. I especially appreciate your point #3 because teaching with stories takes finesse. Unless they are well integrated into learning outcomes, they can draw focus, leaving audience/students with a vivid memory of the narrative and a muddy notion of the central concept.
Daniel Willingham has a nice chapter on how to use the elements of story to teach in his “Why Students Don’t Like School.” We at Fusion Science Theater use the elements of story (playwriting, actually) to great advantage in the construction of science education outreach shows: an investigation question (a.k.a. dramatic question) to amp up suspense and focus, the scientific method as plot, demonstrations to provide evidence, and physical dramatizations to model concepts. Educators have been talking about using story to teach science for decades. It’s great to hear from someone with know how and experience. Thanks for the related posts as well.

Stephanie Chasteen March 21, 2013 at 2:39 am

Thanks for the comment, Holly… I thought about Fusion Science Theater when I got this guest post. Everyone, I blogged about Holly’s great program earlier, at

Bill Goffe March 21, 2013 at 2:59 am

Great stuff! It is so easy to overlook this powerful method.

One minor addition on Willingham and stories: much of it is on-line in “The Privileged Status of Story” . I don’t have Willingham’s book handy, but I’m pretty sure that this link has many more citations for those interested in the cognitive science aspect of this topic.

Larry Bond April 22, 2013 at 8:11 am

Your right that this strategy work. Another way to easily learn science is by using kits and modules. Nice post. Thanks!

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