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The Story of Physics: Storytelling for High School Physics Teaching

Brian Lim, Teacher Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, Toronto

“In the beginning…”

So starts one of the most famous and influential stories in Western civilization. Neil Degrasse Tyson continues the narrative this way:

“...sometime between 12 and 16 billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the point of a pin. Conditions were so hot, the basic forces of nature that collectively describe the universe were unified. For reasons unknown, this sub-pin-pint-size cosmos began to expand…” [1]

As one classroom activity I use to introduce physics to my SPH3U and SPH4U students at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts in Toronto, I (and willing students) read aloud this and other excerpts from Degrasse Tyson’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, ending with:

“...Yes, the universe had a beginning. Yes, the universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnace within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out - and we have only just begun.”

In the short discussions that follow this reading, students express interest and curiosity (“Why did an imbalance between the amount of matter and antimatter occur?”), articulate feelings of fascination and wonder, and often share personal experiences and learning (“I saw that in this other video…”). Activating intrinsic motivation for learning, engaging positive emotions (pleasure, joy) while decreasing negative ones (fear, anxiety), making use of prior learning and experiences, deepening learning community relationships, and framing learning as relevant and compelling — these are some of the benefits of making use of storytelling in the physics classroom.

Storytelling is a basic human activity common to every known culture by which we connect cause and effect, make sense of the world and communicate that understanding to others. As physics teachers, we ourselves are storytellers - through telling the larger story of the nature of science, we can inspire students and engage them in this human endeavor to explore and understand the physical world. As well, many of us already use stories and storytelling methods in our classroom.

Storytelling, Emotion and Learning Motivation:
Our narratives — our stories — should give kids a sense of the intellectual (and sometimes derring-do!) adventures of actually doing science. If we let storytelling like this into the science curriculum, we instantly humanize science, make it relevant to the random child, and automatically make it seem more inviting, less hard. We can do this without watering down scientific rigor, with its canons of evidence that are justly the hallmark of scientific research, innovation and progress.
(Niles Eldrege, Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer 2009)

Over the last few years in the OAPT community, we have been discussing what neuroscience research has revealed about the interconnection between emotion and learning. Stories are one tool for stimulating and engaging the positive emotions that make learning effective. One of the basic questions that students always have and which affects their motivation is: “Why am I learning this? What is the purpose of learning this?” Extrinsic learning motivations (e.g. to do well on an exam, to get a good mark in the course) are often less effective than intrinsic motivations (eg. the awe and wonder of discovery), and intrinsic motivations can be activated by using stories (or some Big Story) to frame learning and doing science as relevant, important, and compelling. We physics teachers know that science is a deeply rewarding human activity and far more than the mere collection of facts and information. Providing our students with a larger story of the meaning and process of doing science engages them by getting them more deeply vested emotionally, such as in the example exercise presented at the beginning of this article.

Suggested use of stories: Do you have a favourite quote or short essay or video that speaks to you deeply about the awe and wonder of physics or about the joy of discovery and doing science? You or students who enjoy public reading might choose to present it at the beginning of a course or at the beginning of a class. As a class or in small groups, students can share about what kinds of feelings or questions are evoked and discuss what they think is the purpose of science. It may work better for quieter students to assign the class to write a short reflection in class or for homework.

Stories as Framing Devices for Learning:
Many of us teachers use stories as “hooks” for introducing a new unit, concept, or problem to evoke student curiosity and engagement, and to draw connections to real life applications.

To introduce the concept that falling objects experience constant acceleration due to gravity for SPH3U students, I tell the (likely apocryphal) story of Galileo climbing up to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to drop objects and observe them falling. I reenact the story by climbing up onto my desk with a number of balls (roughly the same size but different weights) while asking “What question do you think Galileo was interested in answering? Why was he interested in dropping different objects from a high place? What do you think he observed?” While standing on top of my desk, I can facilitate a discussion with the class on experimental design (“What do you predict will happen when I drop a heavy ball and a light ball? Write a hypothesis for this experiment.” “What is the independent variable in this investigation? What is the only thing we are changing about the balls?” “What variables do I need to control for in dropping the balls?”), and then, without dropping the balls myself, I set the students off in their groups to carry out the experiment and find out the ending to the story themselves. The story of Galileo dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a memorable one, which students can instantly recall, and which I can refer to again and again to remind them that acceleration due to gravity is constant independent of object mass.

Homework or test problems can be presented as crime mysteries to be solved, as when I use a CSI-inspired story for a ballistics pendulum problem (SPH4U — conservation of momentum, conservation of mechanical energy). To help students make connections between physics and real world problems, I show a video of 16 year old Ann Makosinski recounting how she decided to develop a flashlight powered by body heat because she was concerned about helping a friend in the Philippines obtain a cheap and readily available light source for studying at night (“Can I power a flashlight without batteries?”).

Students must draw a vector diagram to retrace the footwork of Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen in their climactic sword duel in the film The Princess Bride, a particular favourite of many at my arts school, or identify how Newton’s Laws of Motion apply to Sandra Bullock as she becomes detached from her spacecraft and drifts away in Gravity (“Gravity - Detached”).

Suggested use of stories: What stories can we use as “hooks” when introducing a unit or a concept or an activity? Are there homework problems or investigations we can frame as mysteries or unsolved puzzles or real world problems to be solved? What stories from books or film can we use to enable students to imaginatively enter into a scenario and apply their learning?

Stories, Prior Knowledge and Neuronal Networks
Storytelling, stories and analogies are tools that can be usefully employed in the service of some of the insights into physics learning that Chris Meyer has brought to our attention. In particular, concept learning occurs when networks of neuronal connections are created in our brains. Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks - that is, by making use of prior learning and prior experience. Prior knowledge is the collection of knowledge resources that students bring into our classrooms, and is often coded in the form of stories, rather than individual facts or concepts. When we activate our prior knowledge to learn new ideas, we activate stronger network connections rather than weaker ones, and our strongly connected prior knowledge can conflict with new knowledge for a surprisingly long time. [2]

By making repeated use of memorable stories (e.g. Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa), we can strengthen certain network connections over others to address misconceptions and reinforce new knowledge.

By providing opportunities for students to share their prior knowledge by telling their stories (i.e. about how they “know” something), we can assess their understanding of concepts as well as see where and why misconceptions arise. One way would be to simply ask students to describe their prior concrete experiences and observations, and build on that knowledge. When introducing the topic of falling objects undergoing acceleration due to gravity, I will query students: “Have you ever dropped any object from a great height? What did you drop? Did you drop objects of different mass, or of different shape? What happened?”

Physicist Richard Feynman shares a childhood story about how his observations of a ball on a wagon provided his father an opportunity to introduce him to the concept of inertia (“Feynman’s Father and Inertia”). Students can also share their prior knowledge through whiteboarding in collaborative groups. Using whiteboards to draw mindmaps/connection maps is a storytelling method which explicitly traces how students engage prior knowledge to understand a concept or idea. A group might create a mindmap together, or each student in the group might create their own mindmap and then share them with the group to compare their prior knowledge and connections.

Collaborative problem-solving and peer assessment can also be thought of as making use of storytelling. When a group works together to sketch out their approach to a problem, or when we assign a student to explain each step of a full solution on whiteboard to their partner or group members, what we are really doing is asking them to tell a story, to present a specific plan of action, using the language of physics — representations of the problem using words and full sentences, motion maps or graphs, force diagrams, physics formulae and mathematical calculations. Even something relatively simple like practicing unit conversions requires that my SPH3U students explicitly explain to their partner the reasons for applying a certain step, and allows their partners to trace how prior knowledge is being connected and to provide correction when needed. Just like storytelling, relevant prior knowledge must be recalled, placed in logical order, and expressed using the rules of proper grammar and language. Just as practice and repetition can help us tell a story more smoothly and naturally and become better storytellers, so too practice and repetition enables students to reinforce neuronal network connections and make them more proficient at problem-solving.

Metaphors, Analogies and Models
Metaphors and analogies are already commonly used to help students visualize or understand physics concepts and ideas. We talk about electricity “flowing through a conductor” much like water flows through a pipe, and a common textbook analogy compares an electrical circuit to a water circuit. In the history of our understanding of the structure of the atom, we have Thomson’s “Plum Pudding” model as well as Rutherford’s “Planetary” model. That the mere mention of each of these models should readily bring an image to mind demonstrates the power of analogy, particularly those that make use of the senses. My personal experience in the classroom is that distributing raisin bread or chocolate chip cookies remarkably enhances student understanding and memory of the Plum Pudding model (less facetiously, the sense of smell is in fact closely tied to emotion and memory).

“(We) should provide students with physical analogies for ideas, and we should ask them to tell us their analogies. If they don’t have any, it is quite possible that they have not learned. If they show us mistaken analogies, we get insight into their prior knowledge (existing networks). And if they have good analogies, they become useful teaching tools for everyone!” [3]

When presenting an analogy or model, students can be asked to reflect on it and assess how accurate and useful it is as a representation: “In comparing an electrical circuit to a water circuit, what aspect of the water circuit corresponds to electrical current I, voltage V or resistance R? How does using a water filter with smaller holes affect the flow of water in the water circuit, and what situation might we compare this to in an electrical circuit?” Students can also be asked to provide refinements or corrections to improve the analogy or model, or even build their own metaphors and analogies. Students are more likely to remember a concept or idea associated with an analogy or model that they themselves have created, especially when based on the strong network connections of their prior learning.

Suggested use of stories: Besides water circuits, what other analogies can you or your students come up with for the flow of electrical current in a circuit? What kind of analogies might be useful to understand circuit laws for parallel and series circuits? What concepts in other units have you successfully explained using analogies?

Other Uses of Stories: Deepening Classroom Relationships, Promoting Female Participation in STEM
I consider my role as a teacher to be far more than a purveyor of information. I am a learning coach, a mentor, an adult figure, and a community and world citizen, among other things. Sharing stories about myself, and drawing on my own experiences to introduce personal perspectives help me develop deeper relationships and build up greater trust with the learning community that is my class.

When introducing myself to a new class of science or physics students, I share about my past as a research scientist, and both the excitement I experience from the study of science and the deep sense of purpose I derive from seeking to use science in practical ways to serve human needs and care for the environment.

In my role as a learning coach, I have my students familiarize themselves with Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets and learning (“The Power of Believing You Can Improve”) and assign them to write short reflections on fixed and growth mindsets, inviting them to tell me the story of their personal learning journeys. I share my own personal story of struggling to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset: as a high school and university student, I believed that intelligence was fixed, and so, viewed poor academic results as a judgment on my abilities and intelligence rather than opportunities to learn and improve. Now, as an adult learner of a musical instrument that I quit as a child, I try to model the growth mindset of embracing challenges to my students, many of whom are already far better musicians than I am.

The final (though not least) use of story that I am presenting in this article is in promoting female participation in STEM fields. While female students make up far more than half the population of my SPH3U and SPH4U classes, this is far from the norm in co-ed high schools. Women are greatly underrepresented in university STEM subjects and graduates. Stories may be useful in a number of different ways.

First of all, I present stories of women’s contributions to physics and engineering alongside stories of Einstein and Newton. In the NOVA PBS video production Einstein’s Big Idea, which traces the development of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation, the stories of two women physicists are featured prominently: Emilie du Chatelet and Lise Meitner. Du Chatelet was an 18th century noblewoman who made contributions to the understanding of kinetic energy and whose translation of Newton’s Principia is still the standard one used in France today. Meitner was one of a small group of scientists who first discovered nuclear fission in uranium, but was forced to flee Nazi Germany as a Jewish scientist, and was widely considered to be unfairly excluded from the awarding of the Nobel Prize for nuclear fission. These stories, along with video clips from the film Hidden Figures (about black female mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race), provided the opportunity in class to discuss issues of gender stereotyping in career options as well as marginalization of women’s contributions to science.

Stories told by role models of women in STEM are important then, whether in video form (for example, “Biomedical Engineering - Careers in Science and Engineering”), or by invited guest speakers (e.g. a university professor speaking about her research work with the Large Hadron Collider; former student sharing about her experiences and challenges studying in a STEM field in university).

Suggested use of stories: What stories of yourself do you share with your students, and for what purpose do you share your personal stories? What other ways can we make use of story to promote female participation in STEM fields? Is the use of story effective in promoting female participation in STEM fields?

  1. “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Natural History Magazine, March 1988
  2. “A Scientific Model for Learning”, Chris Meyer conference presentation, 2018, www.meyercreations.com
  3. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, James E. Zull, 2002
  4. Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen, 1998
  5. To Teach Science, Tell Stories, James A. Rose, Duke University, thesis for Master of Arts in Graduate Liberal Studies Program, March 2017
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