People to Ponder: The Power of Story in the Science Classroom
Telling stories of scientists in science classes can have a broad impact. The students and I developed a deeper understanding of science as a human endeavor.
Early in my career as a high school science teacher, I came across a newspaper article highlighting the extraordinary story of Roy C. Sullivan, dubbed the “Human Lightning Rod” after he was struck seven times by lightning… and survived each time. Statistically, the odds of a single person being struck seven times is somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen septillion to one. It shouldn’t happen, and yet it did to Sullivan. I was fascinated and decided this would be a good story to share in my earth science classes during the first week of school to introduce the nature of scientific investigation. Probability and statistics can be helpful tools, but sometimes reality doesn’t follow trends. The story was also a chance to put nervous freshman at ease. No matter how down on their luck they might feel starting high school, at least they hadn’t been struck by lightning seven times!
I did a little more research on Sullivan, put together notes, and used these along with a picture of him holding a burned ranger hat to tell the story. Students were engaged and asked for another story. I researched a scientist related to the next week’s topic and shared it in the same format the following Monday. And thus began an undertaking that became one of the most successful and significant of my teaching career, the People to Ponder series.
People to Ponder is a simple teaching strategy. At the start of class every Monday, I told the story, aided by pictures, of a scientist or someone related to science. The person (or occasionally group of people) always related to something we were learning. The stories weren’t long—I tried to keep them to roughly five minutes. I didn’t require that students take notes, and the stories weren’t included on assessments.
Because it’s so simple, at first I viewed People to Ponder as a fun extra in class, but I started to see that the stories were having a significant impact on students. They looked forward to the next story and would come in on Mondays asking who the person would be that week. Without any prompting, students started referencing the scientists and their work on assignments and tests. Some even researched scientists on their own and brought me the names of potential new people to ponder.
When the year ended, the number one request students made was that I continue doing People to Ponder in biology, the next course most of them would take and one that I also taught. I agreed and went about researching a new set of scientists. In this second year, I saw even more striking results. Students remembered stories from one year to the next and would share them with other classmates. One student reported that the series became a conversation topic at home—her dad would ask her every Monday night about that week’s person to ponder, and they would talk about the story. Over time, I developed a set of stories for every course I taught. Many students reported that People to Ponder was the thing they most looked forward to on Mondays. Based on end-of-year surveys, the stories were universally popular regardless of grade level or subject.
Through People to Ponder, both the students and I developed a deeper understanding of science as a human endeavor. Often high school science is approached as a set of facts to be learned, and little attention is paid to how we developed any of that knowledge. But the story of science is the story of real people who lived in specific times and cultures, had personal victories and tragedies, and grappled with the historical events surrounding them. Some of them achieved success in their lifetime, some were met with skepticism and ridicule, and some literally changed the world without ever knowing they’d done so. Hearing these stories and understanding that the work of a wide, diverse group of people has led to our current reality changed the way students approached science. It also provided them with relatable examples and inspired confidence that they could be scientists themselves. Researching and preparing the stories, while time consuming and a struggle on top of a very full schedule, made me a better science teacher as well. I had a lot of content knowledge, but through People to Ponder I began to connect the subjects I taught and develop a cohesive story of human investigation that my classes could engage with.
While I taught at a public high school, I also volunteered with the high school youth group at my church, and most students knew that I’m a Christian. Telling the stories of scientists gave the opportunity both in the classroom and with the youth group to address the tension of science and faith. Throughout history, people of faith have engaged in science. In some cases they have encountered resistance from those in church leadership. In other cases, it has been those leaders who have pushed scientific thinking forward. In modern times, where science and faith so often seem to stand in juxtaposition, there are some leaders who stand in the gap. One such person is BioLogos Founder and current NIH Director Francis Collins. I first learned of Collins and BioLogos while researching him as a person to ponder during a genetics unit. His People to Ponder profile can be found here. Teachers are welcome to download and use the notes and slides.
Collins’ story was particularly significant to me, because as a science teacher and a Christian, I often felt isolated, as though my worlds were at odds. Collins, who has a strong faith and is considered by many to be one of the most accomplished scientists of our time, shows by the way he lives that science and faith don’t have to be isolated. His story not only impacted me, it provided a positive example for students who wanted to pursue science but struggled with how such a career could fit with their faith. In my current role as a science education leader, I continue to draw inspiration from Collins’ work and share his story and those of other scientists with adult learners in a variety of contexts.
Using science stories in class can have a very broad impact. Whatever form the stories take and whatever their frequency, they have power and potential. We must never forget that stories inspire other stories. My final year in the classroom, a student I’d had in three different courses who came from a troubled past raised his hand and proclaimed to the class, “When I grow up, I want to be a person to ponder.” That student is now an engineering major in college and well on his way to achieving this goal. As we go back to school, try telling stories. They might change the ending for students.
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Emily Smith | Science & Neighborliness