Equity, Concept Mapping, and Placements



This week, our cohort started off by discussing equity in schools, more specifically, equity in science education. We talked about how rural and urban schools don’t always receive a lot of resources or good teachers. We talked about how some teachers hold low expectations for these kids. There’s an unspoken agreement in the community that to succeed in a rural area you have to leave it. In urban schools, science is often seen as a “white subject”, and to do well and be interested in that is to abandon minority culture.

I find all this to be very sad because I find that science is unique in the fact that everyone, no matter their background and experience, has something that they can bring to the table. Every human, at some point in their life, has wondered about something. What are stars made of? How do cars work? Why do people fart? And this is why science has the potential to be a great equalizer. Rural kids might bring their interest and background in hunting. Urban kids might want to create a community garden. And suburban kids…well I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff they’re interested in. Point is, there is value in the background kids have and the things they are interested in, and it is worth it to bring those interests into science education.

Concept Mapping

After our passionate discussion about equity, we moved on to concept mapping. To be able to map out a subject or concept is to know it intimately. You must be able to pull out the “big ideas” and find their natural flow. You must be able to describe how each idea relates to each other and find those mechanisms. The reason we were practicing this was because concept mapping is an excellent way to begin planning out units. We practiced first with a geology unit and found that each of us had different ways of looking at connections. We also found that in working out connections, there’s often a topic that lingers in the background of lessons that turns out to be integral to holding the unit together. We also found that concept mapping is great for planning essays. Try it!


This week was very special in that the majority of us started our high school placements. I am sure that these will be the topic of many blogs in the future, so I won’t spend too much time talking about them, but I did compile a few blurbs from the cohort:

“So far I have been observing my students and writing down a seating chart for each class to start remembering names. I have helped answer questions and assist in lab. I’m nervous I’m not going to remember anyone’s name and I’m a little nervous to have full control of the classroom, but by the time the time comes, I will hopefully be comfortable.” -Sydney

“I’ve been circulating around the room to help students through class activities and worksheets. I’ve also been grading (exit tickets, specifically). Today was real funny because my CT wanted me to test the conductivity lab they’re doing next week and it didn’t work, so my new task is to get it to work tomorrow when I get there! He let me see 3 other science teachers (2 chem, 1 physics) to see how other teachers run their warm-ups, lessons, etc. I’m also nervous to take over the class fully, but I think once I get to know the kids a little bit better I’ll feel more comfortable. I’m also conflicted about my role as a student teacher – there are times when things happen (students resisting to leave when being called out of class by the VP, for example) and I have to deal with these situations in ways that are incongruent with what I would do, but that will come with having my own classroom I guess.” -James

“I’ve been observing, helping students, and grading labs. On Thursday, I got to run the afternoon classes while my CT was out, which was fun (and scary). I’ve learned the names of everyone in one period, and working on names in the others. My CT has been great about asking for my input during class and while planning, which I appreciate. Next week, I’ll be proctoring a test on a day when my CT can’t be there. I’ve also been told that I can run the Regent class’s acid rain labs when the time comes. Exciting!” -Kaitlin

Olivia wrote a lot about her first week on her blog already, so check that out.  She had a very interesting field trip.

Good luck to everyone in their continued placements!

*References from our equity discussion if you’re interested:

Avery, L. M. (2013). Rural science education: Valuing local knowledge. Theory Into Practice52(1), 28-35.

Barton, A. C., & Yang, K. (2000). The culture of power and science education: Learning from Miguel. Journal of Research in Science Teaching37(8), 871-889.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2012). I used to love science… and then I went to science: The challenge of school science in urban schools. In J. Settlage, & S. Southerland (Eds.), Teaching science to every child: Using culture as a starting point (pp. 13-19). New York, NY: Routledge.

New Teacher Help: From Nerves to Assessment

This week marks the first real week of student teaching placements for most of us. I’m feeling a little nervous about teaching all these new high schoolers, so I assumed that other preservice teachers might be feeling the same. As such, I have decided to compile a list of articles that are geared toward helping new teachers. You can go through all of them or just pick and choose whichever article you feel you need the most.

NervesThis article gives tips on how to deal with stage fright before and during teaching. A lot of these are new to me, but I can definitely see myself using them.

Planning Around StandardsHow to organize and plan a unit while keeping the standards. Most of this we already know, but parts of it might clarify for our unit planning.

Open Educational ResourceOpen educational resource is the sharing of apps, ideas, lesson plans, etc. between educators. This article explores a few different sites for this and how to integrate them into your own lessons.

Case Study TeachingThis is an open educational resource that my cooperating teacher introduced me to that contains case study-centered lesson plans. You can search by topic, type of activities, and grade level. They have some pretty cool ideas.

Assessing Understanding: Unsure how to gauge whether it is appropriate to move on in your lesson or review the material a little longer? This article might help. Contains quick and easy informal assessments that don’t rely on taking the students’ word for it.



Engaging the Unengageable

This past week I met with my cooperating teacher to discuss my upcoming placement. She began by informing me that her class was filled with students who weren’t interested in science. I had no problem with that. There’s always one subject that students don’t like; I could still make it interesting for them. Then she told me that the reason they weren’t interested in science was because they were interested in things that were far more important. Food. Shelter. Sleep. How do you engage students that are up all night working to provide for their family? How do you entice someone with cells when they’ve got tunnel vision on food? I began my research.

I started by searching bluntly: “engaging trauma students”. I found a lot, but not on engagement. Most articles just explained what sort of trauma students might be going through and what to look for and how to provide support. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I’ll include the links since they are still helpful:

  • https://www.edutopia.org/blog/brains-in-pain-cannot-learn-lori-desautels
  • https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/8-ways-support-students-who-experience-trauma
  • https://www.edutopia.org/article/when-students-are-traumatized-teachers-are-too?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow
  • https://wmich.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/u57/2013/child-trauma-toolkit.pdf

I asked my mom for advice (she’s a professor). She encouraged me to ask the students what they were interested in. I also remembered that students tend to be more engaged when it involves something major in their lives or communities–something involving social justice. I thought that this was a good starting point, but what do I do when I can’t control the curriculum? What do I do when I’m still working as a student teacher?

I finally turned to someone I’d been introduced (not personally) to in my Race, Class, Gender, and Disability class: Christopher Emdin. I remembered reading a bit from his book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too. I remembered how nervous he was about teaching and how he wasn’t sure if he’d connect with his students either, and he shared the exact same neighborhood, race, and musical culture as his students. I found a few of his talks, and I think it was more of what I was looking for–the “magic” he says that the most engaging teachers have. He says it can be taught. Take a look.

Also check out his website and blog. 


Teaching Science to Students with Low Literacy Levels

When I think back to my years of learning science I remember having long chapters of text to read. I remember having to write pages and pages of lab reports. In short, I have trouble remembering a time in school in which I didn’t need to be able to read and write well for science class.

It was therefore very difficult for me to imagine trying to teach high school biology to a group of students that have the literacy skills of elementary students. There were a number of problems I could see with this conundrum. They would have a terrible time trying to read scientific papers and research. It would take an inordinate amount of time to type up a paper or a lab report. Also, how on earth would I be able to prepare them for state assessments?

As I began to brainstorm, I realized that I could take bits and pieces of methods from different classes to help me with this problem. Special education, elementary education, literacy education, and my field experiences all dealt with aspects of teaching to students who did not yet read or write well. Here are some aspects that I’ve taken from each that I think will help.

Elementary Science and Project-Based Learning. 

  • Project and activity-based
  • Activities require a low level of reading/writing.
  • Much of the explanation and interaction is done verbally
  • Teacher keeps large lists of new vocabulary words around the room as they are encountered for reference
  • Products are usually in the form of something physical or visual with very little writing


  • Recommends literacy lessons to be embedded within interesting authentic contexts, so a literacy lesson involving science text would be completely appropriate
  • products can be done in the form of word sorts, which also allows students to conceptually organize scientific vocabulary words
  • there are multiple literacy tests to help teacher predict which words will be the most challenging for students to learn
  • recommends doing short literacy activities like word sorts once a day, only takes 5-10 min out of core teaching time, can also do these with words/phrases that are commonly used on Regents.
  • recommends sending home “book bags” to work on with family, which includes some sort of text, instructions, and an audio version for families who have different primary languages so they can read along

Special Education

  • provide extra time for activities involving reading/writing
  • let students have oral exams
  • read instructions out loud while having students read along
  • verbally and visually give content at the same time
  • verbal discussions of content as class or small group instead of written activities
  • “think aloud” models
  • repetition of directions
  • have students take a literacy test to better understand what parts of literacy they are struggling with and develop a plan from that

Field Experiences

  • Instead of textbooks, use excerpts that come with diagrams as well
  • help students read or reread questions and excerpts when students are working individually or in small groups
  • model for students how to pull information from the text and find main ideas
  • when doing station work, include simplified diagrams and instructions for tools at each station to help students
  • allow students to use short answers instead of complete sentences
  • use science raps/songs to help remember content
  • Move the classroom into the environment you’re teaching about, like the great outdoors.

I hope to learn more as I continue with these classes and field experiences, and will continue to update my helpful tips lists. I also invite others that have different specialties to add their tips as well.


Nature of Science: Why We Care About It

The nature of science (NOS)  is an odd phrase, one I’d never heard of before until this year. That fact is only odd because I, myself, am a scientist. It turns out that the NOS is something I’ve known and embedded within my practice. It’s just not something I’ve ever put words to. The nature of science is basically how science is done and how it is supposed to be done.

Right now you might be thinking, but I’m not a scientist, why should I need to know about this? Great question. The answer is because science is important. It is what brings us new treatments that cure disease. It gives us vital information about upcoming natural disasters. It lets you know that it might just be a good idea to wash your hands after touching something gross. Since science tells us so many important things, it is equally important that we understand it correctly.

Misconceptions about the NOS can be extremely costly. It has led to disbelief of climate change and children not getting the medical treatment they need to survive. If we want people to make good, educated choices about their lives and the future of humanity and earth, it is a good idea to educate them about how science actually works so misconceptions don’t cause any more problems. To help, I’ve compiled a short list of what I believe are some of the more important aspects of the NOS that everyone should know and the dangerous misconceptions about them.

Science is tentative. Science is a way of knowing. As scientists learn more, knowledge may be added or changed. The misconception that arises from this is that people think scientists know nothing. That is not true. Scientists base their knowledge on empirical data of what they have observed. This data is tested many, many times in order to verify that it is correct. So, you could decide to believe that their findings are being explained the wrong way, but the observations aren’t fake, and the work is always there for you to check for yourself.  That is how the autism-vaccine link study was debunked. Other scientists checked their work.

Theory. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. In common english, a theory usually means an idea or guess, which is why many people tend to disregard scientific theories. However, in science, a theory is well-tested and scrutinized explanation for a phenomenon. A theory was not only tested multiple times by the original group of scientists, but also other scientists possibly over a long period of time. To go further, a law in science is an observation that describes some aspect of the universe that has also been repeated many times. A theory cannot become a law because a theory explains why something happens and a law simply describes what happens.

I can’t believe in science because I’m religious. Religion and science are two different ways of knowing. One is based on faith, the other on empirical research. Science describes what humans can observe, and the other does not. There’s no reason to not believe in both. I can believe that there is evidence that creatures evolve through natural selection and adaptation and also believe that a divine being started it all.

Science is completely objective. Scientists try to be completely objective, but there is no escaping some subjectivity. We are all influenced by past experiences and what we already know and feel. Some subjectivity can be good. It allows us to approach things from different perspectives and find things others might not. It might keep us driven down a path that needs to be further explored. However, the method and explanation should not be skewed by subjectivity. Thankfully, scientific inquiries are checked by other scientists which helps to keep any harmful bias and subjectivity out.

I hope that this explanation helped and that more people will be able to make good decisions because of it. Unfortunately, this part of science is rarely taught well to younger science students. It is important that NOS is taught earlier on. A good portion of school students won’t go into a science field or get secondary education in science which is when NOS is more thoroughly discussed. If people miss out on this crucial part of their education, the way they live, vote, and act may not be in their own favor.

References to learn more: 

Lederman, N.G. (1998). Teacher’s Understanding of the Nature of Science and Classroom Practice: Factors that Facilitate or Impede the Relationship. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(8), 916-929.

Schwartz. (2007). What’s in a Word?: How Word Choice Can Create (Mis)conceptions About the Nature of Science. Science Scope. 42-47.

Settlage, J. & Southerland, S. (2012). Teaching science to every child: Using culture as a starting point. New York, NY:Routledge. (chapter 2)


Counseling: A Gap in the Warner Education




Within the first week of my observation at East, I realized that my Warner education had a gaping hole in one area: counseling. The first inkling that I was missing something came to me when a student refused to work with her partner. I tried to fix the situation, but it quickly became clear to me that I was in over my head. I called to my mentor teacher for help and, by some magic, the situation was resolved within a minute. More of these situations popped up within the next week, but attempting to do what my mentor teacher had done did not work for every situation.

This past week, a more difficult situation presented itself–death. Two students had unexpected deaths in their families within the same week. I assumed that the students would be absent from class, or, if they did show up, they would express their feelings in sadness. I never expected their grief to present itself as anger, but it did.  It affected the entire classroom environment, so much so that our teacher had to completely scrap a lesson and instead hold a group therapy session.

In another of my classes, Theory and Practice in Teaching and Learning Literacy, our professor brought up the fact that the schools in which her literacy majors would be placed had a large number of students who had gone through trauma. She also informed us that a student who experienced trauma had the same emotional weight as an adult reacting to a national tragedy, but every single day. Some of the traumas that were given as examples, I could hardly believe even happened in a first-world country. A classmate that had graduated from the counseling program remarked that it was strange that teachers did not have to take counseling classes considering that it would be us that would be interacting with the students the most.  After experiencing the teaching-life myself, I had to agree.

So why does Warner omit such an important class? Counseling classes aren’t even available to us as an elective; they’re reserved for those in the counseling program. Sure, we get a few lessons in dealing with bullying and maybe one in responding to students in a crisis, but is that really enough? According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), the U.S. average of counselor-to-student ratio is 1:478. Some schools don’t even have a full-time counselor (ACA, 2005, p. 4). And just think about everything that is going on today in our country. Think about Charlottesville, Hurricane Irma, Philando Castile. When 9/11 happened, it was largely the teacher’s responsibility to discuss what happened with their students (Gouleta, 2002). I don’t think that that sort of responsibility will change. So, in a time in which so much tragedy and fear and hate exists, teachers are going to need counseling strategies more than ever. Our teacher prep curriculum needs to change.


American Counseling Association. (2005). Reauthorization of the       higher education Act (HEA). Retrieved from http://counseling.org.

Gouleta, E. (2002). Debriefing a crisis for elementary students. Retrieved  from http://www.lessonplanspage.com/OTerrorismDebriefingACrisis1.htm

And…Action!: The Reality of Teaching

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.

Me teaching about macro invertebrates. Kid’s identity has been censored.

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.

My first door decoration. The result of my excitement.

Storytelling in Science Part II: Tips for Storytelling

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Materials to Consider


Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer

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.

Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur by Tom Rea

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: Cancer Biologist, Professor, and Mom




Dr. Yaich comforts a skeleton distressed by the state of the anatomy lab.

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.

Dr. Yaich in her office getting ready for the March for Science

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)?”

Dr. Yaich:

  • “Try to imagine the types of things you liked to do at that age and adapt activities along those lines.”
  • “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”
  • “Use resources like howtosmile.org.”
  • “Have the kids help you set up and clean up.”

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: yaich@pitt.edu

Also, to anyone keeping up with this blog, Storytelling in Science Part II has been pushed to next week.



Storytelling in Science Part I: Why Scientists Could Learn from Storytellers

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.

Figures from “Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science” See study link above.

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.

Art done by Erin Meekhof. Check out her portfolio here: http://www.erinmeekhof.com/

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
Example of misinformation. Taken from Donald Trump’s twitter feed.

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.

Ph.D. student pioneers storytelling strategies for science communication

This is an interesting article about how scientists can learn from Pixar to tell better science stories.

The Importance of Storytelling in Science

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.

The Story Behind the Science

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.

Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences

A good article that analyzes why storytelling is helpful in science communication.

The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling

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.

Science Needs a Makeover

Another blog post, this time the author (Atif Kukaswadia) talks about his Tedx talk he gave about using stories in science education. If you want to just watch the Tedx talk, click here.