Inspiring Science – Part 1
Writer Brandon Mendelson contends that one of the keys to creating an environment where science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education can flourish and flourish well is the ability of all students to be good storytellers.
Like many students, Mendelson’s love of storytelling began at an early age. “I was writing poetry before I was reading,” he said, “and I was taking voice lessons and lyric lessons before I could read.”
Mendelson has written many books for both adults and children about visual art and visual performance. He was inspired to write A Mathematical Hamlet as a way to demystify the science of writing mathematics. He continues to write professionally to inspire others to learn the language of mathematics through the lens of the verbal arts.
But without students learning to read and write about science and math, Mendelson says, students will never fully understand the relevance of the subjects to their lives. And without a thorough understanding of the world as we live in, there can be no mastery of the STEM subjects.
“We can teach kids how math works and how things work, but if they don’t care, how can we compete?” he said. “Reading science fiction or plays or novels and fiction – where you can feel an audience and a narrative and a world – that’s what kids need to feel.”
Success stories of storytelling science abound. Take Jillian Soloway, for example. Soloway and her husband, writer-director Jason Katims, gained worldwide acclaim in 2011 with the streaming series “House of Cards,” which won a BAFTA award for best television drama. Soloway, who is now the showrunner for the transgender-themed Hulu series “Transparent,” is a widely acclaimed science fiction writer, including winning three Emmy Awards for writing the scripts for “Arrested Development.”
On a more small scale, Amber Winkler has led her firm Science in the Making for over eight years, working to help coaches, students and organizations improve science learning. She created an early childhood program called “Science with Kids,” a literacy-based program that she believes can be used as a catalyst for the return of reading to our schools. Winkler recently partnered with science education giant TEDx.com and “The New York Times” to host “ScienceKit,” a weekly show about science to give students a way to develop their own brand of science literacy using open-source resources and learning online.
The conversation around STEM subjects has gone mainstream in recent years, driven largely by the achievement gap. Rachel Osborne is the Director of School Performance for Big Picture, a collaborative that works to improve the STEM performance of Chicago students. Working with schools to enhance engagement with STEM subjects, Osborne said that meeting students where they are – in environments and experiences that align to their learning styles – is key to improving learning and retention.
“If we’re talking about literacy, our students need to be learning in a way that is personalized for them,” Osborne said. “Students need to find ways to reach higher. For example, if you put the ‘I’ in ‘ICT,’ we are talking about power in numbers, because kids are learning how to think with lots of numbers, and you can’t do that in the classroom.”
One of Big Picture’s latest solutions is a mobile app called “TRAP,” which gives students a way to contribute research to their projects in a simple and accessible way. Students compete to get things wrong more than they are to correct them, which allows them to tackle a problem at their own pace. The concept of testing can be intimidating, and kids who are used to modeling their actions after their peers may not be able to get through the parts of the process that are technical. By making the learning process approachable and collaborative, kids gain confidence and motivation to continue on the path to STEM education.
But how do we change these kids’ behavior? How do we get them to pursue their interests as leaders in the STEM field? How do we make science exciting again for a new generation of students? We can’t rely on myths and mythologies that paint science as boring, Fischer-Grammarian learning about the universe that is hard and boring and misunderstood. Rather, we have to create new models for learning that make technology accessible and make science and technology cool, which is precisely what Master Storyteller’s Mendelson is trying to do.