Saturday, December 13, 2014

Science Via Creative Writing

A valid movement in education?
By Hunter Doughty

The campaign to increase and maintain the amount of art that is taught in schools is a cause for which art supporters the world over have long been petitioning. And many of these supporters believe that art should not only be a stand-alone subject, but that it should be integrated in to other subjects such as science. As a scientist and a writer myself, the idea of using arts as a means of teaching ‘the facts’ is pretty enticing, but is this cry for integrated learning simply a fad, or is it in fact a valid claim? It seems that as far as the fine arts or even the theater arts go, the jury is still out. Some say activities such as painting or role-playing can effectively teach science course material, but others disagree (Braund 2014; Cross 2014; Carrera and Arroio 2011; Davis 2007; Evans 2008; Gazzanig 2008; Hosson et al. 2014; Merten 2011; Odegaard 2014; Pomeroy 2012; Steele 2013). Interestingly though, what does appear to be gaining more attention is the use of creative writing.

Ronnie Kaufman/Corbis (Evans 2008)

In a study by Ganea in 2011, she found that “by 4 years of age, children can learn new biological facts from a picture book.” This finding was based on kindergarten students answering questions about camouflage after reading a picture book that described camouflage in the animal kingdom and its purpose. Additionally, Ganea found that her students then related this information to real animals in their experience. This transfer to reality shows the significance of these stories in shaping the student’s perception of the world.

Though there are many implications of this work (Ballouard et al. 2011), Jason Derry, a PhD candidate at University of Denver, believes that one of these implications is that fiction should be used as a key tool in future teaching of sustainability science. Derry assessed the views that children aged kindergarten through 4th grade had of various exotic and domestic animal species by having them write/draw their own stories and pictures about each animal. He found that most of his students had inaccurate understandings of both species types, and that elephants (of particular importance to us here are TEI) were the most characterized. This means that students’ perception of elephants was largely based on fictional representations of the animal, such as cartoons or books. Derry believes that these findings further prove that children are shaping their understanding of nature, and science, using fictional stories, and therefore we should present children with more realistic fiction. In response to these findings, Derry has started a publishing house called Oakenday Press that will publish children’s books specifically aimed at teaching environmental and ecological lessons. Their first book, My Backyard Elephant, will be available March of 2015.

Oakenday Press

Using narration to teach sustainability science is important, but in regards to the broader field of science education, Ganea’s findings still beg the question: how applicable is this method to teaching more complex concepts? For topics like protein production in a cell, covalent hydrogen bonding, population density calculations, or even parallel lighting circuits, can a fictional piece really teach all of the key components involved so that the student fully grasps the topic, and is this a time efficient method? It seems to me it would require a detail-dense novel worthy of the great author Tolkien in order to cover all of the necessary material in some of these topics. And at that point, I wonder if the student would even take away the inlaid information or just the surface-level characters and plot twists.

To my knowledge, this Lord of the Cells has yet to be published, but I would definitely be interested in testing it out if it does happen to exist. And though I don’t know the practicality of solely using narration to teach these particularly complex subjects, I do very much see the validity in using narration to augment traditional methods. In recalling my own science education, the lessons that I can remember the most are the topics that were taught to me using some sort of story, or were described in a clear step-wise (narrative) fashion. For example, I aced my exam on the endocrine (hormone) system because our teacher seamlessly wove in the cause and effects of hormone release into stories that started with Sally drinking caffeine, progressed through the many catalyzed reactions that then occurred in her body, and then ended with her now feeling more awake and having to pee.

In addition, this use of fiction to help teach science also applies to students creating their own fictional pieces. There is growing evidence that writing, and possibly creative writing, can help students learn scientific concepts (Keys 1999). These findings are supported by other research that demonstrates creating visual art is linked to an increase in a student’s ability to overcome studious mistakes and persist, to envision, and to empathize (Hetland et al. 2007; Davis 2007). If we apply these qualities to the artistic process of creating fiction it seems likely to me that by having a student develop a story related to the science they are learning, it could encourage them to think more critically about the material, develop innovative approaches to the concepts, and evoke in them an emotional connection to the topic. All of which could support the student in further understanding the concepts and better remembering the material.

As the discussion of art-science integration wages on, it seems all sides agree that we need more effective means of engaging students in the sciences, and a greater understanding of how art actually effects young minds. I believe that based on currently published research, and my own experiences in learning and teaching science, the use of narration in science education is a logical and possibly highly effective method for teachers to employ. Creative verse allows both the author and reader to delve into a story and become enveloped in its meaning. And if this meaning ties to a scientific concept, then we may better impassion the next generation to see the almost fictional magic of the scientific world.

Ballouard, Jean-Marie; Brischoux, François; Bonnet, Xavier (2011). Children Prioritize Virtual Exotic Biodiversity over Local Biodiversity. PLOS ONE. August.

Braund, M. (2014). Drama and learning science: an empty space? British Educational Research Journal.

Cross, Chrissy (2014). Connections between inquiry and art, incorporating art into an inquiry based science curriculum. PhD Dissertation, Texas Tech University. May.

Carrera, Vanessa; Arroio, Agnaldo (2011). Movies in Natural Science Education. New Trends. Natural Science Education. Volume 3:32, pages 36-43.

Davis, Jessica (2007). Why Our Schools Need the Arts. Teachers College Press. New York.

Derry, Jason (2014). Animal narratives: a case study in how children perceive local and exotic animals, including animal eating habits and animal placement in human culture. MSc Thesis. University of Denver. May.

Evans, Karin (2008). Arts and Smarts. Greater Good Science Center, University of California Berkeley. December 1. Accessed December 13, 2014.

Ganea, Patricia (2011). Young Children’s Learning and Transfer of Biological Information From Picture Books to Real Animals. Child Development, 82 (5), 1421-1433.

Gazzanig, Michael (2008). Learning, Arts, and the Brain. The Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition. Dana Press. New York

Hetland, Lois; Winner, Ellen; Veenema, Shirley; Sheridan, Kimberly; Perkins, David (2007). Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. Teachers College Press. New York.

Hosson, C. De; Bordenave, Laurence; Decamp, Nicolas; Hache, Christophe (2014). Learning Science through the Conception of Comics: the SARABANDES Research Project. France. March.

Keys, Carolyn (1999). Revitalizing Instruction in Scientific Genres: Connecting Knowledge Production with Writing to Learn in Science. Science Education. Volume 83. Pages 115– 130.

Merten, Susan (2011). Enhancing Science Education Through Art. Science Scope: National Science Teachers Association. October.

Oakenday Press. Accessed December 13, 2014.

Odegaard, Marianne (2014). Science Theater/Drama. Encyclopedia of Science Education. March. Pages 1-3.

Pomeroy, Steven (2012). From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand. Guest Blog. Scientific America. August 22. Accessed December 13, 2014.

Steele, A, Ashworth, EL (2013). Walking The Integration Talk: An ArtSci Project. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Volume 4:2:6. 


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