January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

The Power of Storytelling in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Thursday, January 14th, 2016

by Anna Van Dordrecht, MA and Adrienne Larocque, PhD

Storytelling, which is fundamental to humanity, is increasingly being used by scientists to communicate research to a broader audience. This is evident in the success of scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Capitalizing on this, in our classrooms we both tell stories about scientists under the banner of People to Ponder. Benefits of storytelling for students are numerous, and many align with NGSS. Specifically, Appendix H states that, “It is one thing to develop the practices and crosscutting concepts in the context of core disciplinary ideas; it is another aim to develop an understanding of the nature of science within those contexts. The use of case studies from the history of science provides contexts in which to develop students’ understanding of the nature of science.”

A Person to Ponder – Frances Kelsey

Frances Kelsey was born in 1914 in British Columbia, Canada. She graduated from high school at 15 and entered McGill University where she studied Pharmacology. After graduation, she wrote to a famous researcher in Pharmacology at the University of Chicago and asked for a graduate position. He accepted her, thinking that she was a man. While in Chicago, Kelsey was asked by the Food and Drug Administration to research unusual deaths related to a cleaning solvent; she determined that a compound, diethylene glycol, was responsible. This led to the 1938 passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA control to oversee safety in these categories. In 1938, Kelsey received her PhD and joined the Chicago faculty. Through her research, she discovered that some drugs could pass to embryos through the placental barrier.

Kelsey also earned her MD while working on the Chicago faculty. In 1960, she was hired by the FDA to work in Washington, D.C. One of her first assignments was to review the application to approve thalidomide – a morning sickness drug used in Europe and Africa. Kelsey was pressured by drug manufacturers but refused to approve it without further study because of results in Europe. Soon after, severe birth defects in infants in England were linked to thalidomide. Because of this, Congress passed an amendment in 1962 requiring stricter limits on drug testing and distribution. Kelsey was considered a hero and awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by Kennedy. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Kelsey continued to play a role in the FDA until she retired in 2005 at age 90. She died in 2015 at the age of 101.

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Benefits to Students

We have found that telling stories increases students’ scientific literacy and their understanding of the nature and context of science. Anecdotes provide concrete examples of Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). The story of Frances Kelsey illustrates SEPs such as asking questions (SEP #1), analyzing and interpreting data (SEP #4), engaging in argument from evidence (SEP #7), and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (SEP #8). Studying the life of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr shows how she engaged in engineering practices: she defined a problem (the Nazi dominance in submarine warfare in the Atlantic during World War II) and designed a solution to it (frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology).

In addition to aligning with NGSS, stories about people like Lamarr and Kelsey illustrate the relevance of science and technology to students’ lives and society as a whole. The stories are presented in their historical, social, or political context. For example, describing how Galileo’s observations supporting heliocentrism antagonized the Catholic Church promotes the integration of diverse subjects such as Science and Humanities.

Historical stories also illustrate that science is an imperfect, human endeavor. This encourages students to question scientific discoveries and inventions and how they are impacted by and influence society. For example, engineer Thomas Midgley both implemented the use of tetraethyl lead (a neurotoxin) to reduce knock in engines and developed chlorofluorocarbons to replace dangerous gases in refrigerators. In the context of studying climate, students understand Midgley’s profound impact that’s still felt today.

Storytelling leads to increased engagement in the classroom and better long-term retention of information. Research shows stories and storytelling are more likely to engage students with high verbal scores in STEM classes and careers. Students ask when we’ll be doing another People to Ponder installment and even suggest people about whom they would like to learn more. The accounts promote discussion among students at school. They even inspire conversations between children and their parents at home.

Students also benefit from being exposed to role models from groups (e.g., women, minorities, and the differently-abled) that are underrepresented in science and technology. Seeing scientists as people, and importantly, people who are like them, is critical if students are to consider careers in STEM fields.

We have additionally found that our own understanding of science has increased through researching the lives of our subjects. Sharing this with our students models life-long learning and demonstrates that we can be co-passengers on a voyage of discovery. In addition to providing an engagement strategy, the stories can be tools for teachers to develop and implement lessons emphasizing SEPs. For example, recounting how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the first Periodic Table can lead into an exercise in which students build their own table using atomic masses and reactivity data.

Integrating Stories into Your Science Classes

People to Ponder can take a variety of forms. Van Dordrecht tells students each Monday about a person who is directly related to what they’re studying. Larocque shares stories periodically with a graphic organizer for students to record information. Universally, in classes ranging from sheltered Physical Science to senior level AP Biology, the stories are impactful and add depth and richness to lessons.

We encourage you to bring historical storytelling into your own classroom and see what differences you notice in engagement and understanding of science. As we transition to NGSS and focus on the bigger picture of scientific processes, there is no better time to experiment with historical case studies and capitalize on the universal love of stories.

Anna Van Dordrecht and Adrienne Larocque both teach at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, CA and are members of CSTA. Anna teaches AP Biology and also works part time as the Teacher-on-Loan for Science at the Sonoma County Office of Education. Adrienne, aka Dr. Addie, teaches Academic Earth Science and Physical Science. She also is an Adjunct Professor in the Geology Department at Santa Rosa Junior College. Both authors would love to hear how you include stories in your own classrooms- Anna at avandordrecht@srcs.k12.ca.us and Adrienne at alarocque@srcs.k12.ca.us

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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