Jill Hopke

Environmental Communication. Social Movements. Mobile Media.

Bringing the Power of Stories to Science Education

Last Friday, March 16, 2012, I attended a workshop, “How Stories Teach,” on integrating cases studies into science education to internationalize curriculum, sponsored by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) International Programs office, along with the UW’s Division of Information Technology’s Engage program.

Coming from a background in radio, I am keenly aware of the power of storytelling and was interested in its application to teaching science. I was not disappointed in the least.

It is not an easy time to be an educator in Wisconsin, so it was reinvigorating to to hear about concrete examples of what passionate instructors in the sciences across campus are doing to make science accessible and heighten critical thinking skills in students. In her opening, CALS Dean Kathryn VandenBosch reminded attendees of our mandate to prepare students for the realities of the twenty-first century economy where they will need to work in internationalized and/or multicultural settings. The question is, how do we help our students move in these directions? VandenBosch’s answer, tell them stories and think about innovative teaching methods.

In the first session, Christopher Blakesley, a dissertator in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction who researches narrative in new media learning environments, reminded us that, in conjunction with logic, stories are a way that we make sense of the world. Stories are an “untapped resource,” a means to the end goal of deeper engagement. According to Blakesley, stories help create an aesthetic experience which is immersive, creative and meaningful. Stories are a means to get us to this atsethic experience, to discover the meaning of life. That’s a high bar, but with the refrain “cast down your buckets where you are,” he left us with theoretically-grounded sense of what’s possible.

Some of the storytelling principles that exist, according to Blakesley:

The Hook Principle: Based on tension, conflicting ideas, compelling problem. Video games are a medium which is engaging people more and more. Strikingly similar to what we do in radio, stories in video games follow a dramatic arc building interest over time.

The Motif Principle: The patterns and repeated elements in stories give coherence, helping us feel that life is as we know it).

The Surprise Principle: A violation of our expectations. For example, education researchers at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery are creating video games to teach citizen science.

The Transmedia Principle:  You need a good character and interesting world. The idea that a story world is bigger than just one medium. There are many ways to explore this world and different ways to see the same thing. The Hunger Games for example.

In the second presentation, Amber Smith, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Biology Education, and Amanda Evenstone, a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, got into the nuts and bolts of designing case studies through “backward design,” meaning starting by defining learning objectives and desired results, thinking about how you will assess learning and designing the instructional component. In a catching worksheet, instructors should work through the “seven C’s” of scenario design: content, context, challenges, characters, choices, consequences and connections.

The day’s keynote speaker was Ethel Stanley, the director of the BioQuest Curriculum Consortium at Beloit College and member of the Science Case Network Steering Committee, which is funded through National Science Foundation. She asked, “What does it mean to be an educator in this day and age?” Students need to be able to ask questions, use resources to answer them and be able to use data throughout their lifetimes. There are no borders for tools and methods. According to Stanley, science is a global endeavor, global problems need global solutions.

As Stanley’s presentation highlighted, we need to teach students to ask questions, consider methodology and what they need to know. Case-based learning allows people to share knowledge and negotiate misconceptions, to question what they already know with peers. We learn in a contextualized fashion. Students retain more knowledge through case studies, with knowledge that is embedded we are able to form new mental connections. As educators, we want students to say, “I finally understood science in a way I never had before.”

To end, what then exactly are “case studies”? My take-away from the day is that they can encompass many types of learning environments, from written handouts to online, interactive scenarios to educational video games. The key aspect is that they be engaging, connect to students personal experience, stimulate critical thinking and rooted in solid learning objectives and goals. I look forward to integrating these principles into my teaching in the fall.


  1. Thanks for the reflections, Jill. It good to see the workshop disseminated to a new audience through you writing.

    I’ve added links on BioQUEST and ScienceCaseNet:
    Bringing the Power of Stories to Education by Jill Hopke cites both BioQUEST and our collaboration with the Science Case Network in her reflections of the March 16, 2012 UW-Madison workshop, How Stories Teach, that focused on integrating cases studies into science education to internationalize curriculum.

    I thought it was a a great effort by the CALS International Program with Masarah van Ecyk’s leadership. Best wishes, Ethel

    • admin

      March 29, 2012 at 16:41

      Hi Ethel,

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, linking to my post and a very engaging and educational presentation at the workshop! I agree that the program was well coordinated and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to attend.

      Take care,


  2. Thank you for this wonderful write up of our event! I especially appreciated this sentiment: “The key aspect is that they be engaging, connect to students personal experience, stimulate critical thinking and rooted in solid learning objectives and goals.”

    Please note that the event was co-sponsored by CALS International Programs and Engage (http://engage.wisc.edu/). Most of the presenters came from their amazing office.

    • admin

      March 30, 2012 at 16:57

      Hi Masarah,

      Thank you for your feedback and for organizing the workshop! I greatly appreciated the opportunity to attend and it left me with a lot of great teaching methods to consider as I rework the course I will be assisting with in LSC this fall!



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