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Scientific storytelling: How to boost learning with creative writing

Science is a lot of things, but it's not always creative. That leaves many imaginative students feeling bored and restricted in class. To help counter this, I encourage my students to explore scientific concepts through stories. Sometimes that means reading a good story about the people and events that helped shape our current understanding of reality, but what I like best is getting my students to write their own stories.

boy sitting at a desk doing creative writing in science class with abstract neon background

Why stories make for good science lessons

Everyone loves a good story. There's a reason we've been telling them for thousands of years. Unfortunately, scientists have become shockingly efficient at sucking the life out of their own stories. There's a reason for that too. Scientists publish their work primarily to communicate with each other, and they aren't interested in emotions and embellishments. That's all well and good for experts trying to replicate experiments, but it does nothing to inspire curious students or inform the public in general.


A good story is relatable, featuring people doing and experiencing things we know and understand. It appeals to our emotions, such as fear and wonder, drawing us in and leaving us wanting more. In this context, even the most mundane scientific concept can be captivating. Don't believe me? Watch the first two and half minutes of this video on the discovery of nuclear chain reactions.

This is from an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds entitled "A Tale of Two Atoms" which is absolutely phenomenal. It contains an even better cautionary tale about the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in the Caribbean, but I was unable to find that clip. I would recommend the whole Cosmos series, in fact, but this episode in particular features some great storytelling. Imagine if all science was taught like this?


Other examples of good scientific storytelling

Documentaries use dramatic music and impressive animations to wow us, but good writing works just as well without any of that. Check out The Really Big One, a 2015 article from the New Yorker that describes, in chilling detail, how a catastrophic earthquake could devastate the west coast of North America at some point in the future. It's one of the best popular science articles I've ever read - so good, in fact, that I've gone on to share it with many Earth Science students over the years.


So far I've only shared stories based on historical or factual information, which is fine, but there is so much more for you and your students to explore by delving into the world of science fiction. From simple web comics to epic sci-fi novels, there's something for everyone, and the potential for learning cannot be overstated.


manga guide to physics science comic book cover

One of my favourite series is the Manga Guide to... which uses Japanese-style comics to explain high school, and sometimes college level concepts. There are books for Physics, Calculus, Astronomy, Biochemistry, and more. Also, unlike real Japanese comics, each subject is conveniently summarized in just one book and not spread out over 200 volumes! I sometimes photocopy a few pages when its relevant to what we are learning in class, or direct interested students to read them on their own. Every year a few kids get really into them and ask to take a book home. Good luck getting that level of interest from a textbook (which these kind of are, but in disguise!).


Andy Weir the martian classroom edition novel cover

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Andy Weir's amazing 2014 novel, The Martian (I know, I've mentioned it before). In case you somehow missed the book or the Matt Damon movie by the same name, it's the fictional story of a mechanical engineer/botanist who ends up stranded on Mars for a number of years and has to go about getting himself rescued. The science is top notch and it's pretty funny as well. If I had the time I would love to read this book with a science class in its entirety. From rocket science to agriculture to international politics, there's just so much to discuss!


These are far from the only examples of great science stories to share with your students. I've even noticed a trend among science teachers of reading science-themed children's books to their middle and high school classes to introduce and discuss new concepts.


Creative writing activities for science students

Once your students have a feel for the kinds of science-based stories that are out there, it's time for them to flex their creative muscles and produce something themselves. There are so many ways to implement this in your class I'm not even sure where to start, so I'll just list a bunch of examples based on some of the assessments and activities I've done over the years.


1. Write a short story based on a difficult scientific process

This is an activity well-suited to detailed biology concepts that everyone dreads learning about. Think Krebs cycle, kidney nephrons, or the immune system. Have your students write their stories from the perspective of some component involved in the process. For example...

  1. You are a carbon atom in a pyruvate molecule that has just finished glycolysis. What happens to you next?

  2. You are a red blood cell that is about the enter the heart. Describe your journey as you travel throughout the body.

  3. You are a specially trained assassin cell known as "killer-T". Write about your ongoing mission to rid the body of cancer cells.


The above are all real assignments I've given, and although the stories kids produce tend to be pretty silly, they actually have to know what they are talking about to write them well. To make sure that the writing stays creative and not just descriptive, I ask students to write about what their characters are thinking, doing, and feeling at all times. I then grade students not on their storytelling ability, which is subjective at the best of times, but on their accurate inclusion and understanding of scientific concepts.


Here's a quick excerpt from a student story about red blood cells:


"Little Red felt good to be alive, but suddenly his instincts kicked in and he knew exactly what to do. His mission was to go around the entire body delivering the precious and unstable compound, oxyhemoglobin. Then Red noticed all the other cells coming to life - his cousins - but there was a problem. They weren't oxygenated! He cried out to them to start the long journey to the lungs. All the cells knew what they had to do, so they started marching toward the lungs to pick up their precious cargo."

2. Make a comic featuring a cast of scientific characters

I've done this many times and it's always good fun. Science is full of easily personified objects and ideas that practically write themselves. Here are a few of my favourite topics that lend themselves to comic creation:

  1. The periodic table - Comic about the interactions between elements

  2. Cells - Comic about the organelles and their day-to-day lives

  3. SI units - Superhero style comic about metric units


Here are some examples of student work to give you an idea of what can be done:

cell wall organelles comic
Organelles comic
rock cycle comic sedimentary rock
Rock cycle comic
period table of elements comic helium and sodium love story
Elements comic
period table of elements comic gold neon potassium
Another elements comic

3. Write a short-story using a list of vocabulary terms


Students write whatever story they like but must include all the words you select for them. Choosing the right words can take a bit of trial and error as you want the story to sound natural, but the best part is that you can use this activity for any topic or subject. You can make it a bit less open-ended by choosing a setting and basic plot for your students to follow, or just give them complete creative freedom if you want to hear some truly bizarre tales! This doesn't need to be a formal assessment, either. It works great as an exit ticket or homework assignment to check for understanding.


Here's an example vocab list for a physics topic on waves:

  • amplitude

  • aperture

  • auditory

  • camera

  • compression

  • cornea

  • decibel

  • ear drum

  • electromagnetic spectrum

  • focal point

  • frequency

  • interference

  • iris

  • lens

  • medium

  • oscillation

  • pitch

  • prism

  • propagation

  • reflex

  • refraction

  • resonance

  • retina

  • period

  • transmit

  • ultrasound

  • volume

  • wavelength

As you can see, this is an much an English assignment as it is a science assignment. Some of these words have multiple meanings and some would be quite challenging to use in a sentence, but that's sort of the point. Using these words is one thing, but using them correctly in a natural way takes real communication skills. That's what you're helping your students to develop by performing this task.

4. Write a news headline to summarize a concept

You may already be familiar with headlines as a activity, but it's still a quick and dirty way to get students thinking creatively. After learning a difficult concept, have students come up with a headline to communicate the main idea in an exciting way. It can be a real challenge for students to condense a big idea down to whatever is most interesting or important. Here are a few examples:

  1. Photosynthesis - "WE DON'T WORK NIGHTS", SAYS PLANT UNION

  2. Polymerization - NO END IN SIGHT FOR MOLECULAR CONSTRUCTION PROJECT

  3. Newton's Laws - IT JUST KEEPS GOING - THE SHOCKING REASON WHY OBJECTS STAY IN MOTION

Your students will almost certainly generate some clever and/or hilarious headlines such as these. You can share and discuss them in pairs or small groups and then highlight the best ones for the whole class. You can also extend the activity by having students write whole satirical articles based on their headlines filled with exaggerations and dramatic language. If your students are into it, you can even have them make video news reports. My grade 8 students made a video like this on human-bear conflicts a few years ago. It was about 40 minutes long and filled with interviews, commercials, discussions, and graphics. That required a ton of coordination and creativity!

5. Make a prediction based on current trends or hypothetical scenarios


For this type of activity students are given a brief description and then create a character based on it. I like to combine this with drawings to make it a bit more visual, but I'm only really grading the stories and descriptions.


As an example, I gave each of my students a short fact sheet for a planet or moon in our solar system and then asked them to create an alien that might live there. They were required to include a description for all the characteristics of living things (movement, reproduction, etc.). Here's what one student came up with for Mercury:


student drawing of a pink round alien from mercury
An alien from Mercury, obviously!

Another time I gave a similar assignment based on natural selection and evolution. I gave each student a description of a hypothetical ecosystem and then asked them what would happen to a population of rabbits if we left them there for a million years. Here are some examples from two different ecosystems:


rainbow rabbit student drawing evolution natural selection assignment
A rainbow rabbit that lives among flowers
future rabbit student drawing natural selection evolution assignment
An amphibious rabbit that feeds on garbage

6. Write and perform a play or create a movie trailer


I do this one every year for grade 10 genetics and they're starting to get pretty elaborate as mobile cameras and editing software improve. Students write a script based on some sort of controversial topic (cloning and genetic modification have been popular) and then act it out. These don't have to be elaborate productions, and if your students don't want to be in front of the camera they can make a stop-motion animation or something similar instead.


I'd rather not share any of these for student privacy reasons, but trust me, they're hilarious, and the science isn't half bad either! Usually we watch each trailer and then have a short discussion on the ethical questions they raise.


Conclusion


Students of all ages appreciate the opportunity to express themselves through their work. Creative writing accomplishes this and more without sacrificing scientific understanding. In fact, I would wager that it actually improves understanding and retention because students can connect their learning to an emotional narrative that is much easier to recall. At the same time, they are building communication, collaboration, and media literacy skills, which will be useful in all aspects of their lives. For these reasons I would encourage any science teacher to give one or more of the above strategies a try. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results!


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