Science and Storytelling

Course Description

“Storytelling is a way to share the fact that while science may be based on observations of the natural world, it is done by humans who feel, who make mistakes, who get depressed, who fall in love. We are science. It’s refreshing to embrace that … By creating emotional connections, storytelling lets us all leap, albeit briefly, over the walls that so often cloister academic science.” —Phoebe Cohen, Professor of Geosciences, Williams College.

We will begin the quarter by asking, what is story? What is storytelling? And why would storytelling be crucial for science communication? In his book The Storytellling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall proclaims that “for humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives.” In this class we will develop your “Story IQ”: we will learn how humans evolved to be the storytelling animal, what a story is, how stories shape our lives, and why and how science communication needs storytelling in order to be relevant to public audiences. Once we lay the groundwork on story architecture, we will then move into critiquing story structures (and stories) in science communications, and ultimately you will create compelling stories of your own that communicate and/or correct science research or discovery.

The main project for our course will be a Student Choice Story Project, which will give you the opportunity to experiment with and apply the story intelligence you are gaining. You will create an original, compelling story from scientific findings; some of you will create a “counter-story” (and thus will be engaged in counter-storytelling, a powerful approach to “counter” deficit storytelling in science). You will choose the medium, the purpose, the audience. You can create a video, a “movie,” a popular article for any magazine, a museum exhibit, a visual display or art exhibit, an educational or informational or argumentative podcast, etc. The goal is to apply all of your Story IQ in this assignment; we will work on this project in steps, collaboratively.

Main Assignments

  • Story Analysis I:: Choose a science communication and write/create an analysis of its story structure; identity its story elements and evaluate the architecture. Present to class (in addition to submitting for feedback from instructor).)
  • Story Analysis II: : Choose a science communication and submit revisions of the “story”—keeping audience and purpose in mind; we will evaluate together how the story is improved with your suggested revisions. Does not have to be a piece of writing (could even be revisions of a museum exhibit).
  • Short Form: Op-Ed Piece, Blog entry for Nature, 600 word “newspaper article”:: Compose a short piece for a particular audience on scientific research or a science related issue. What is the purpose of your piece? To excite, to educate, to call to action? How can you employ story architecture for a short-form piece like this?
  • Long Form: Student Choice Story Project:This is a longer, more sustained storytelling project where students will create an original, compelling story from scientific findings, or, engage in counter-storytelling (we will learn about this in class). Importantly, students will choose their medium, their purpose, their audience. Students can create a video, a “movie,” a popular article for any magazine, a museum exhibit, a visual display or art exhibit, an educational or informational or argumentative podcast, etc. The goal is to apply all of their Story IQ in this assignment, and we will work on this project in steps, collaboratively.
  • Reflection on Student Choice Story Project:To honor the projects, and the students process, students will tell live story about their projects, reflecting on the challenges and the quality failures.