The day starts early. I’m on the road, traveling almost an hour to an elementary school full of students that I’m about to meet for the first time. I barely know the mentor teachers. I don’t even know where the cafeteria is. Still, I push those thoughts to the back of my mind, choosing instead to focus on the music I’m blasting. But then my GPS announces that I am less than a mile away and I feel the adrenaline start to kick in. This will be my first time really teaching as an adult.
Most people don’t know how much time goes into preparing for teaching. I definitely didn’t. I assumed teachers had to do nothing during the summer aside from the few weeks of typing out a lesson plan. I know there are some teachers that just recycle their lesson plans year after year and don’t do much; but the vast majority of teachers are spending tons of extra hours trying to make their teaching effective and enjoyable.
My mind has been blown by the sheer number of things teachers have to go through before they even think about stepping into a classroom. Who has an IEP? How will I be inclusive? Oh, I also have to be culturally responsive. How do I do that? How will my students answer this question? How do I guide them to the line of thinking I want them to consider? I’m just going to rewrite this whole plan. Oh I should probably test that experiment first. Shoot that didn’t work. Is that safe? Will that take too long? Of course their families speak the language I didn’t choose to learn. Should it be 3 groups or 4 groups of kids? Crap, guess I won’t be getting those eight hours of sleep. LATE NIGHT WALMART TRIP!
The kicker to all of this is that you’ll plan each lesson with the same attention to detail an Oscar-winning movie director would, and once you actually get into that classroom, that 50-page plan goes right out the window. We don’t get on the bus right away. Kids ask a question you didn’t realize you don’t know the answer to. Some kids just refuse to speak. They aren’t as excited about jumping into water on a summer day as you are (I still am unable to comprehend this). There’s barely an internet connection, so forget about tech demos going smoothly. And of course, you ain’t got time for all that.
Despite all of this, it is exhilarating to have to put all I’ve learned so far into practice. Everything starts to click. I hear the kids laugh. They ask questions. They’re excited for Monday. I don’t care that we had to go off script. I’m even more excited and determined to do my best for the next week. However, to anyone reading this: thank your teachers.
In ‘Storytelling in Science Part I’, I explained why storytelling is a useful skill to have for scientific communication. If you haven’t read that blog post, you might want to do that first. At the end, I promised to give some tips—things that have worked well for me. So here we go, my top 5 tips for storytelling in science, a writing exercise for you to try, and some print resources. I hope you find this useful.
Include a character (or characters) and anchor the story around them. When most people read a book, they try to relate to the characters. If there are no characters, it is just a string of facts. While the occasional fun fact is interesting, it doesn’t exactly foster an emotional connection or motivation for continued reading. A character doesn’t have to be the main scientist involved. It doesn’t even have to be a person. If you can figure out how to turn a virus or a lab animal into a character, go for it. Unexpected characters can make a work more interesting. If you do pick a real person, make sure to keep their essence when you talk about them or quote them. People are interesting because they all have a different personality and voice. Make sure to keep that. Don’t forget to describe them and humanize them.
Avoid procedural language, unless you are doing it ironically, or you’re writing a methods section for a scientific paper meant for others to replicate. Procedural language means writing in passive. ‘The mice were subjected to…the results were analyzed by…the wasps were modified using…’ That’s a methods section. A story would read something like, ‘Dr. Steve and his team spend months at a time living on the harsh, unforgiving tundra’. The focus is on the characters, there’s more connection to who is doing the action, and the sentence has more energy.
Be descriptive. People like to see what is happening in their mind when they read. It’s more interesting that way because it’s how they get to be a part of the story. If you say ‘the study was completed in Wyoming’, you get a lot less information than ‘The study site was dusty and dry. The distinct smell of sagebrush and stench of rabbitbrush permeated the air. The wind was strong, making the tents struggle against their bindings. One of the field techs commented on the one day they’d forgotten to stake them down. “We chased one tent for like quarter of a mile across the prairie. It was pretty funny to watch.”’ See? More information, more humanizing, and the readers actually get to be a part of the work for a bit. Fun fact: That was a true story, and yes tents look pretty hilarious when they’re rolling away like huge, brightly colored tumbleweed.
Watch your language. I’m not talking about swearing. Science is notorious for having an exceedingly large vocabulary. It can be useful when scientists are communicating between each other because the precision lets them know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s important for replication and review. However, if you’re talking to the general public don’t make it more complicated than it has to be. There’s definitely some key terms you’ll want to include that are particular to what you’re talking about, but don’t put in unnecessary jargon. Know your audience.
Include the stakes of the story. What is the motivation? What were the roadblocks? A real story needs motivation behind it, and some form of an antagonist. The motivation guides the story and explains to the readers why they care about this particular study. This is even more important in science when motivation can be the key to funding. The roadblocks are what make the story more interesting. Without struggle, a story is just a long description, and most people find that boring.
Writing Activity: A Lesson in Description
This activity was first introduced to me in my undergraduate career at the University of Pittsburgh during a field course in Wyoming. It’s really simple, but extremely helpful. Pick a spot and go there. It is helpful if there is something interesting there to focus on. We were led to a bridge that crossed over a busy railroad. We were told to wait until a train started to come toward us, and then begin writing down everything we experience in real time. Use all the senses if you can. Feel free to add your emotions as well. You’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll get at description, and that is an essential skill in storytelling.
This is the most comprehensive, helpful, and interesting guide for writing. It is for writing fiction, but most of it can be translated over to good nonfiction as well. It’s an interesting read even if you never use any of it.
This was one of my first introductions to science writing written in the form of a story. It’s pretty interesting, but reading it in one chunk can be hard to do, so I recommend a chapter or two a day. It does a good job of widening and focusing the lens of the discovery it talks about. There’s plenty more literature out there for those not interested in this topic. Just google ‘best science writing’ and you’ll find lists.
Dr. Lauren Yaich is an intelligent biologist, a good teacher, and an awesome mom. She received her B.S. in biology at Colgate University, and completed her Ph.D in cancer biology (focusing on breast cancer) at Vanderbilt University. Shortly after completion and giving birth to me, she worked at the University of Michigan doing postdoc research in cancer biology. Four or five years later, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford campus at which she now has tenure. Her work at the university includes teaching classes such as: introductory biology, developmental biology, genetics, cell biology, and occasionally cancer biology. She acts as an advisor to her students and an outreach advisor to the high school for matters of taking undergraduate courses or college-in-high school programs. She has also developed and run several science/STEM camps for younger children at the university, including one specifically for girls.
Dr. Yaich is currently on vacation in Montana with her family (minus one significant person) so I did not have the opportunity to ask too many questions. I did manage to conduct a brief interview in the morning before she headed out for the day. I focused my questions on her work with science camps as I thought it would be most relevant to my readers.
Me: “What was the biggest challenge in making a science camp for kids and how did you deal with it?”
Dr. Yaich: “Biggest challenge was finding activities that could be done with wide age range – anywhere from 6 years to 12 years. Little ones couldn’t read much or handle more complex concepts. But couldn’t make it too simple or older ones get bored.”
Me: “Did you use the same activity with different scaffolding, or pick different activities depending on age? Were they all in the same group? I can’t remember.”
Dr. Yaich: “If you have enough helpers [you] might be able to let them pick. Some years we had to occasionally combine ages for some activities due to limited staffing. Tried to break it up into big kid group and little kid group when staffing permitted though. Classroom management was also occasionally an issue especially if we had a child with behavioral issues in the group.”
Me: “Did you have any special education teachers to help?”
Dr. Yaich: “No. No special ed teachers.”
Me: “What advice would you give to us (new teachers trying to develop and run a camp for grades 5-9)?”
“Try to imagine the types of things you liked to do at that age and adapt activities along those lines.”
Me: [jokingly] “Are you suggesting we use child labor?”
Dr. Yaich: “No seriously. It can save your sanity. And they [the kids] often enjoy being helpful.”
Me: “What was your favorite part about the experience?”
Dr. Yaich: “When some would come back the next year and be all excited to do more stuff. Their energy.”
Me: “Is that what kept you doing it multiple years?”
Dr. Yaich: “I guess so. Had to eventually turn it over since it did get overwhelming on top of my other responsibilities. May still help out though, just not be the main leader.”
Me: “If my classmates wanted to use you as an ‘expert’ to come talk to their kids through video chat or something, what would you most willingly talk about? e.g., cancer bio, cell bio…If they did this you could totally say no.”
Dr. Yaich: “It’s fine. Any of the subjects I’ve taught is good. ”
You can get into contact with Dr. Yaich with her university email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, to anyone keeping up with this blog, Storytelling in Science Part II has been pushed to next week.
Science communication is a very important skill. Part of the main point of science is communicating it to other people. We communicate to other scientists to help them with their research. We communicate it to teachers so that children get a more updated, interesting view of the world. And we communicate it to the general public so they can make informed decisions or just learn about interesting things.
Unfortunately, the general view of scientific writing is that it is complicated, dull, and confusing. They’re not completely wrong. In school we are taught to write scientific papers as concise as possible. The premier importance is communicating how and what you found so that others can critique and repeat the experiment themselves. Your audience is defined as other scientists that will understand scientific language. You can see how this can be problematic for communicating to nonscientists, though even scientists prefer easier to read, more narrative style papers. There was a whole study done.
There are many forms of scientific literacies. There’s the scientific paper, movies, talks, discussion forums, news articles, magazines, books, and even poetry and art. Each kind represents a different message you want to communicate. Papers are for details and data and analysis. Movies are for inspiring. Magazines are a more general audience friendly version of a paper with more humanistic and story elements. And art can inspire and/or help others understand. Movies, magazine articles, and books usually are the best at telling a narrative. They understand that people prefer stories to steps and data. They want characters, stakes, and conflict—not a graph they can barely read.
Almost every form of scientific literature could benefit from good storytelling skills, but you don’t want to completely break the format. There is a reason that scientists all use the same sort of format for papers. Scientists are familiar with the format. They can easily jump around and grab the parts of the paper that they need. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t incorporate storytelling into the abstract and background part. People like stories. Here’s why:
Most people can read stories faster and remember them better
People tend to care about relating to the subject and the reasoning of why something is happening. Stories require a character and stakes.
More people are familiar with the format of a story and how to analyze it.
Stories are designed to hook you in. They help you talk about things in attention-grabbing, interesting ways.
So if more people prefer and understand stories better, connect that to why science communication is important:
If science literacies are more interesting, more people will read them
More scientific literate people leads to better informed decisions. If more people were scientifically literate, think of how much easier it would be to shut down misconceptions like ‘vaccines cause autism’. Think of how many more people would vote in favor of environmental regulations and research funding.
Scientists might pick up papers that hold something that is key to their research that they originally didn’t examine because they couldn’t get past the abstract.
More people will want to be involved in science
More scientists will be happy because their work is being read
In summary, science communication is important, but some work could be done in making it more understandable and enticing. Storytelling is one way to do this. You might have noticed that this blog’s title is “Storytelling in Science Part I”. I’ve explained why storytelling is useful for science communication. Next week I plan on sharing my own experiences with science writing and give some tips for storytelling, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, here are some interesting articles I found while investigating this topic.
This blog examines the specific study mentioned earlier in the second paragraph. It provides a good analysis and gets most of the points of the study across if you’d rather skip reading the whole paper.
This is a good resource for teachers who want to show students the story behind certain theories and scientists. These include guiding questions for students to answer and information bubbles that clarify common misconceptions and add points about different contexts.
This article from the American Scientist magazine examines how storytelling can be implemented and already is implemented in scientific papers. Roald Hoffman (the author) examines stories in scientific papers, but I think it is more valuable to pay attention to how he frames the studies he looks at. The way he writes about the science there is very good. He starts looking at specific studies on page 3, which is why I set the link to bring you there.
I loved SparkNotes when I was a kid. And when I was in college. And now, really. It quite honestly saved my procrastinating posterior multiple times. So, when I decided to focus my studies on biology in college it wasn’t that big of a leap to wonder: ‘Why isn’t there a SparkNotes for science?’. I know I’m not the only one wondering.
Why I Love SparkNotes
It is a lifesaver when you are short on time. Or hate the book. I’m looking at you, Moby Dick.
Their summaries are great for reviewing content before a discussion or test.
It can be very fun trying to glean meaning from a centuries old text, and feel the odd words in your mouth, but sometimes a lot of the connotation, jokes, and relatability are lost without help.
Sometimes there’s historical context you need that most people don’t naturally have. SparkNotes fixes that.
Provides context, common ideas scholars have about the book, and it explains why certain parts are important. I’ve often used this part as a stepping stone for coming up with ideas for papers.
Even if it didn’t happen to have the book I was reading, I still had a better idea of how to analyze literature from using the site for other books.
I felt like I got a lot more from the books and loved them even more.
Why I Hate Reading Scientific Papers
Scientific papers are not very accessible.
If you’ve never been exposed to one before, it’s a completely new format, and you’re not even supposed to read it in order.
The vocabulary is new and might not even be understandable with a dictionary. You probably won’t even fully understand it unless you’re involved in that particular branch of science.
Imagine having a reading disability on top of all of this.
Imagine being interested in the idea but not being able to understand the content.
Imagine being a kid.
What Exists Now
There are, of course, other ways to propagate scientific work. There are documentaries and science TV shows. Online journalists and magazines do a good job. They use a more common language and you get interesting visuals and more context and humanism than you would in a paper. Here’s one example of a site for kids I really like. They even have a list of key vocabulary words with definitions for each article.
The problem with these literacies are that they often gloss over methods, data analysis, and the process and critiques. Those are pretty important if you really want to understand what doing science is actually like and how to properly communicate your findings. A scientific paper lays out the truth. Other people need to be able to follow your thoughts and methods, or there’s no way to really test your theory. Another problem is that journalists sometimes go for the sensational approach, leading to misinformation.
Looking to the Future
If a site could break down scientific literature and help bring meaning as much as SparkNotes does, science would be so much more accessible.
More accessibility can lead to better informed decisions, greater interest, and allow for a more diverse audience.
Obviously it would be highly improbable for a breakdown of every paper given the amount and rate of publishing. However, if we could have a good number of articles explained and analyzed, it could be a really helpful tool for scientific literacy. Once you understand how to read and analyze one paper, the next is a lot easier.
Taken from David Tennant’s performance of Hamlet
If anyone else has encountered any sites like this, would like to discuss how a site like this could be established, or just also has a strong opinion about whether a site like this should exist, please let me know in the comments!
Pretty much anyone who has been in Rochester recently has probably heard that there’s been some trouble with the lake. By trouble, I mean flooding. If you attempt to drive around the area of Charlotte Beach or Durand, you’ll find that roads have closed, public playgrounds are now public swimming parks, and the work to pile sandbags and pump out water is strong. People have noticed, and they’ve begun to complain. This has led to a [not unexpected] round of pointing fingers.
According to many news sites, politicians are blaming something called Plan 2014. According to the writers, “Plan 2014 is designed to provide for more natural variations of water levels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that are needed to restore ecosystem health. It will continue to moderate extreme high and low levels, better maintain system-wide levels for navigation, frequently extend the recreational boating season and slightly increase hydropower production. More year-to-year variation in water levels improves coastal health.”
Lake Ontario is the only one of the Great Lakes that is somewhat controlled by humans. It is controlled through two dams on the St.Lawrence river. The problem with dams is that they can be, and usually are, environmentally unfriendly. They trap essential sediments upstream, interfere with fish migration, create an artificial stagnant area which native plants and animals are not equipped to deal with, and can even lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Plan 2014 sought to negate some of these effects by having a looser control, allowing for a more natural ebb and flow of water. This includes allowing a bit more water in Lake Ontario, hence the politicians blaming the Plan for the flooding.
Scientists, however, are blaming the recent freak weather. They state that even if the Plan had not been in place, there would still not be anything they could really do about the flooding.
The whole argument is interesting, as it brings together science and politics in a way that is relevant to my life. Though, with Trump in office this seems to be happening a lot. There are a few points I’d like to bring up. 1. No one is pointing fingers at the owners/builders of lake front property. Obviously, they aren’t at fault for the flooding. But their complaints are a little hard to swallow when they made the choice to go for land right next to the lake. If there is property near the lake, I assume it will flood at some point, especially given the climate change projections. 2. Despite the fact that Plan 2014 involves more safeguards against dangerous water levels and the substantial benefit it could provide to the local wetland areas, many oppose it. They see the flooding and they blame the Plan without fully understanding it. This seems to happen a lot in science. Whether it is climate change, vaccines, or local environmental action plans, I hope that more people can strive for better understanding of our world.
For another take on the recent flooding and Plan 2014 try Viktor’s blog.
Most people have heard of the phenomenon of Pokémon GO. If you weren’t one of the millions of people playing, you probably heard about it at some point in the news or had a friend or kid that played. I never downloaded it, but all of my friends did. I didn’t really understand the appeal. You walk around until a pokémon, a fictional Japanese anime animal, appears on a real live map on your phone, and then you try to virtually catch it. That was the main idea. It was supposed to be a good way to get kids outside. It wasn’t until I participated in the phenomenon that I began to understand.
It wasn’t too long after the game was launched. My friends and roommates happened to be all hanging out together for some reason. It was probably 9 or 10 at night. One of my friends suggested we all go out for a pokémon hunt, to which most enthusiastically agreed, including me. I didn’t have the game, but I rarely turn down a walk. We walked around the neighborhood, around a cemetery, no particular direction. Every so often one of the group would pause and call out excitedly that they’d found a new pokémon. The rest of the group would run over, searching to find it as well. Or not. Maybe they’d already caught like five of those the day before and wanted to continue looking. As I walked along with my friends, (I was looking for owls while they looked for pokémon) I realized that I was doing the exact same thing they were. Except I was searching for real animals.
My realization made my brain explode with connections. Pokémon GO was almost the exact same thing as birding. Both could act as a game, trying to find the most or the rarest. I assumed finding new Pokémon brought the same thrill as finding a new bird. Both involved walking around outside looking for animals through a device–binoculars for me, phones for them. It was something you could do anywhere and made walking more interesting. People rushed and gathered around Pokémon hot spots just like birders did when a rare bird alert came out. It creates a community of people, sharing pictures and locations. Both send people stumbling into new and weird places, and both can be an addicting hobby. So why, I wondered, was Pokémon GO so much more popular than birding?
I began to find my answers (once again) through my friends. When I initially talked about birding, they were not very familiar with it. Some didn’t even know what it was. The majority of them did not own binoculars, which, while not necessary for birding, can make it feel much more rewarding. Ever take a look at an Indigo Bunting or a Cedar Waxwing up close? They’re stunning. Lastly, the number of birds they could identify could probably be counted on one hand.
From my own experience, before I took a class in ornithology, I was never really interested in birds. Their songs and calls were meaningless woodland chatter. I only got to really see them at feeders, and they weren’t as impressive or exciting as wolves or snakes. I was also somewhat aware of a stigma (which is totally wrong) of birders. In media, most of the time birders are pictured as little old ladies or men with huge binoculars resting awkwardly on their chests. Their dialogue is nerdy and sounds like jargon. They’re always pictured in city parks like Central Park in NYC (the number of times I’ve seen birders as a witness to a crime in Central Park on television is actually quite surprising). So, yeah, when I thought about it, I could understand why birding wasn’t so popular.
By now you’re probably wondering why you should care. These are just hobbies. You’re either interested or not, no big deal. Let me lay out for you why birding is important.
1. A big branch of biology is ecology—the study of organisms and their interactions with each other and their surroundings. If you want to be a field ecologist, or even just a field biologist, being able to identify some sort of organism is priceless skill. Believe it or not, counting and detailing the number of different bird species in an area is a common type of data collection, and just one way of utilizing identification skills. Pretty much any job description for field techs or field biologists requires some sort of skill with identification. My ability to ID eastern U.S. birds is what got me my first job out of college. Whether it be herps, birds, plants; good identification skills will get you into labs and into jobs. Birds tend to be more rewarding because they’re generally easier to find.
2. Birding builds identification and classification skills. It’s easier to identify a family of bird than the exact species. For example, I’m terrible at identifying specific wrens. However, I can tell when a bird is a wren because they all have the same sort of tail shape and posture. I can then use that to look up the identification later. Those sort of skills make learning new identifications in other areas easy. I can take the same concept over to plant identification. I don’t know what species of tree is outside of my house, but I understand that I can use the shape of the leaves to narrow it down to a maple family and go from there.
3. Birding is fun and it makes for a healthy hobby. Hiking is more interesting if you’re playing the game of ‘name that bird’. Plus, once you can identify birds by sound, you’d be surprised at how many more you’ll be able to find. Fun fact: You can get most birds to come closer to you/reveal themselves if you play their song. I wouldn’t recommend doing this too often because it makes the bird angry and can stress them out if you do it too much, but it can be a helpful tool if you’re having trouble finding a bird you’re hearing.
So what I’m saying is, if you liked Pokemon GO, give birding a try. It’s fun. It’s a useful scientific skill. And unlike most Pokemon GO users, you can actually get paid for it. Decided you want to give it a go? Here’s some helpful resources for getting started:
• https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ This website is the go-to place I use to check bird identifications, get songs and calls for playback , and practice my identification skills. Plus, it gives you a quick snapshot of where they’re located, what they eat, fun facts, etc.
• Check out this site and grab a Sibley Bird Guide book if you’re truly interested in birding. There are a lot of bird ID books out there, but I prefer Sibley. The illustrations are good, they include maps to show you summering and wintering grounds, and even give you fun little sayings to help you remember bird songs. If I only have an idea of what kind of bird I’ve seen, like its family or where it likes to hang out, I go to Sibley. He also has books about bird science (ornithology) too.
• Nikon ActionEX 7×35’s are good starting binoculars. Unless you’re trying to see something really far away, like a raptor super high up, you won’t need binoculars with greater zoom. I also like these ones because they’re easy to use, work well when you want to do a scan across a landscape, they’re not too big or bulky, and they’re comfortable for glasses and non-glasses wearers. Plus, these are waterproof so you don’t have to worry about rain or, say, dropping them into a pond.
My final wish is that someone create a Pokémon GO for birds. There’s so much you could do with that. Put their locations in their natural habitat, have the location alert be their song, and actually…never mind. Just go out and go bird.