The "nature of science” movement in education encourages children to see themselves as characters in our collective story of discovery.

Opinion: To Groom Better Scientists, Harness the Power of Narrative

Exposure to the “how” and “why” of science can help prepare students for the rigors of independent inquiry.

When I visited my childhood home last Thanksgiving, I came across a time capsule I made in kindergarten. It contained a memo to my future self about where we’d end up in life: Next to a prompt that read “When I grow up, I want to be a [blank],” I’d scrawled “scientist.” So I have the evidence to support the claim that I have, in fact, always wanted to be a scientist.

But I haven’t always known what actually doing science looked like. In grade school, I was a gifted test taker; facts and figures had a way of lodging themselves in my brain long enough to make their way onto an exam page. When I joined my first lab in college, I was ready to put my knowledge into practice. My lab mates were asking exciting questions about heredity and the roles of nature versus nurture. But when it was my turn to conjure up a novel question, I found myself paralyzed. I had mastered the skill of answering test questions — whose pre-cooked and seemingly immutable answers had already been sussed out and scrutinized by the scientists of yesterday — but my beloved textbooks hadn’t prepared me to be the one doing the asking. They hadn’t taught me how to be a scientist.

I tell this story to students whenever they ask me the question, “Can I be a scientist if I’m not getting good grades in school?” Of course, they can. Aspiring artists don’t learn to paint by memorizing the images in a book of paintings. Rather, they study the motivations of the artist, and the purpose behind each brushstroke. They learn about the tools that were available at the time, and how the masters applied those tools to craft art. In short, they study not just the art itself, but how and why the art was created. The same must be true for scientists.

How can we imbue students with this richer understanding of the scientific enterprise? How can we teach the “how” and “why” of science?

One way is to leverage the tools of narrative storytelling, a strategy championed by the “nature of science” movement in education. In this approach, scientists are the main characters, discovery is the central plotline, and science, then, is the evolution of how we understand the world around us. Not only can these narratives better prepare aspiring scientists like my younger self for the rigors of scientific inquiry; they can encourage children who never envisioned themselves as scientists to see themselves as characters driving the plotlines in our collective story of discovery.

Teaching science through narrative underscores the fact that knowledge is not fixed, but rather always emerging through active questioning of the unknown. Stephen Klassen, a former physics education researcher at the University of Winnipeg, explains that stories can be used to open doors for learners, prompting curiosity by providing the “reasons for needing to know”— the motivations behind a scientist’s actions. By exploring how scientists question and cultivate curiosity, students can begin to imagine themselves as interrogators of our universe.

That appreciation for questions is the basis for a Columbia University undergraduate seminar called “Ignorance: How it Drives Science,” taught by neuroscientist Stuart Firestein. Every week, Firestein invites a researcher from a different field to share the open questions that have fueled their work. The talks provide students with a glimpse of how curiosity has opened new fields of inquiry. The seminar series inspired Firestein to write a book of the same name. When I began graduate school, my adviser gifted me a copy, and as I grew more comfortable asking questions, I began to mature into an independent researcher. But I soon learned about another pivotal plot point in any scientist’s narrative: failure.

The paths to big, bold discoveries are riddled with false starts, unexpected results, and outright dead ends. Evidence suggests that there’s value in exposing students not just to sanitized narratives of success, but also to stories of failure. In a 2016 study, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues at Columbia University’s Teachers College, as well as Jondou Chen from the University of Washington, crafted educational materials that wove the struggles of famous scientists into tales about their feats of science. The stories complicated the “lone genius” narratives so often associated with the likes of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, adding in a new human dimension. High school students who were taught failure narratives showed increased interest and higher performance in science, and this effect was even more pronounced in low-performing students. The work lay the foundation for the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center (EPIC), which will study the impact of teaching failure across a wide variety of disciplines.

For some students, the problem isn’t handling failure; it’s finding models of success. I often hear from people — especially from underrepresented groups — who were told as students that they didn’t have what it took to be a scientist, and who had no tangible images to point to as proof that someone with their background could succeed in STEM professions. For them, the portrayal of scientists as characters in a narrative can be especially empowering.

Treating scientists as characters underscores the idea that they are people too, and it can be a way to expand the idea of who can become a scientist. That’s a key reason biologist Jeff Schinske and his colleagues developed “Scientist Spotlights,” a series of homework assignments that required community college students to read or listen to personal histories of scientists from diverse backgrounds. Students often found that they and the scientists shared similar experiences, including the experiences that sparked the scientists’ interest in research. As students discovered more commonalities with the spotlighted scientists, their performance and engagement in the biology class improved.

Gina, a black and Native American student, is a testament to the method’s potential. According to an analysis of the “Scientist Spotlights” assignment, after hearing the story of microbiologist and cancer researcher Agnes Day, she commented: “As a strong Black woman representing women and people of color in a white male driven field, Dr. Day defies what I believed about people who do science. I wonder if the questions of science require diversity, collaboration, and personal passions in order to be answered.”

By exposing students to stories of scientists who walked paths like their own, Scientist Spotlights helped students begin to understand why their presence matters — and how their unique experiences and perspectives can steer the course of discovery. The study illustrated just how much science’s future trajectory hinges on who we include and celebrate in the narrative of its past.

One of my mentors, neuroscientist and science communicator Mónica Feliú-Mójer, often says: “We must show people how they belong to science — and how science belongs to them.” Her words echo as my inner mantra. I’m a scientist today because no one ever told me “No.” But it took me many years to climb off my pedestal of facts and begin writing myself into the story of science. Today’s students shouldn’t have to wait so long.

Maryam Zaringhalam is a molecular biologist, science communicator, and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion based in Washington, D.C. She is a Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a producer for the Story Collider. Find her on Twitter @webmz_.