September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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.

Nasco Science - Click for your FREE catalog!


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 and Adrienne at

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:

Leave a Reply


California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.