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June 19, 2023

Teaching Through Stories: Ecology and Biological Sciences

Storytelling has long been recognized as a powerful tool for teaching and learning, with its ability to engage students, inspire curiosity, and foster connections to the world around us. In the realm of ecology, where understanding the complex relationships between organisms and their environment is essential, weaving together educational lessons with compelling narratives can create a memorable and transformative experience for students. Telling stories is a deeply human thing, and it can do all sorts of things, like:

  • Capture student interest
  • Make abstract concepts feel real
  • Liven up the classroom environment
  • Draw students into the lecture, even if they're not interested initially

In this blog, we will explore the art and science of teaching ecology through storytelling, delving into captivating examples, effective techniques, and the profound impact stories can have on our perception and appreciation of the natural world.

What we remember from class

Every professor and teacher would love to hear that their students remembered every last thing they said in class. We also know that will never be true. And as the years pass for our former students, much of that knowledge also leaves them. But what remains? The stories.

I can't tell you what went on from day-to-day in my Plant Biology class. But I can tell you the one time our professor sat us down and shared a great way to remember how trees grow. She started by asking us a question: If I carve my initials into this tree at 5 foot off the ground, in ten years, where will my initials be on the tree?

The correct answer is 5 foot off the ground. Only the tippy top of trees grow upwards. The rest of the tree trunk grows outward. That means that unless you carved the tip of the tree - which would probably kill it - the height of damages to a tree trunk is static.

We learned a bunch of other stuff, too, but that little story and factoid, I will carry to my grave. Classroom stories like these make memorable experiences for the students, be they college aged or younger students. Stories engage us at all levels of our brains. A good story can make an hour go by quickly.

Create memories while you teach

My goal when I teach is to create memories for my students. I don't care if they can't do the Hardy-Weinberg equations six months after class. I care that they remember why washing their hands after they touch raw beef is important. I care that they remember why certain birds migrate thousands of miles each year.

These memories are formed through stories and experiences, not lectures. Telling stories also makes me human, not some scary, impersonal professor. The storytelling process helps my students connect with me asynchronously. Teaching stories is one of the best, most important ways to teach.

For example, when I teach a lesson on the food web in an Ecology course, instead of having students memorize the different roles of predators and prey, I should have them create an original story about the interactions between these species. They will always remember the children's story they wrote, even if they don't remember that specific species of hawks eat birds eat worms eat dead hawks decomposing into the soil. It's not about the species. It's about the concept.

Discussions over lecture

During and after COVID, many professors (like me!) switched to completely online classes. For me, it's very convenient. But it's also more challenging to create interactive experiences for my students when we're entirely online.

So if I'm teaching a lesson on the effects of climate change, instead of lecturing about it for an hour, I might have my students participate in a discussion. We can discuss case studies from our textbook or watch YouTube videos on how different regions are being affected. Or we might brainstorm ways to reduce our own carbon footprints. Discussions like these allow my students to apply what they've learned, so that they get the best experience for their money.

You don't have to be the storyteller alone. You can have students create pictures, write stories, or something else entirely. Students' lives are full of great stories - it's just that no one is asking about them. A student can relay a story about whale watching during a biodiversity lecture, or about the poison ivy they got last summer when talking about plant defenses. Stories help students integrate new knowledge and enhance the learning experience.

Technology over pen and paper

While taking notes can be useful, providing interactive exercises for your students is yet another way to help them remember the content after they've left class. Technology provides an amazing array of tools to help with this.

For example, if I'm teaching a course on the carbon cycle, instead of having my students take notes in class or answer questions on paper, I can provide them with a virtual simulation game or an interactive quiz to help reinforce their knowledge. They'll have fun learning and they won't forget it either.

The next frontier of education

Game play and storytelling are the next frontier of education. By combining the interactive nature of games with the emotional impact of storytelling, we can create truly transformative learning experiences for our students.

Whether you’re teaching a group of five year-olds or a room full of college students, there is no better way to make your content memorable and stick around in their minds than through stories and interactive activities. So try something new next semester! I have, and it's really improved the way that students are reacting to my class, communicating ideas, and participating in the learning process.

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