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Science in Museums: “Storytelling and Science”

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on January 16, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice

“This is boring, why do I need to know about it?” “When am I going to use this information in my real life?” “I don’t like science, it’s too hard.”

Sound familiar? As you may imagine, science educators face comments and questions like these every day in classrooms and museums. A lifetime of dry high school science lab experiments and dull college lectures has turned many people off of learning about science. As the world around us becomes increasingly scientifically driven, educators find themselves asking more than ever how they can change people’s minds about science. It’s crucial that we make science learning attractive to the public so that they can make informed health, political, and economic decisions.

But how can we do this? How can we change minds so that visitors not only understand science, but love it?

Ben Lillie, creator of the Story Collider podcast, believes the key is not only in what we are teaching, but in how we are teaching it. In an interview with Curator magazine this month, he discusses his theory that it is not simply enough to tell people they need to know something: you have to make it interesting enough on its own merits that they will want to know it. You have to invoke an emotional response. This is where the concept of storytelling comes in. Lillie invites guests onto his podcast who tell stories about their lives as scientists: while the stories are scientifically driven, they are more about the people involved than the facts. As Lillie puts it,

“…with stories that’s how people remember the facts. If it’s vital to the plot, if it’s important in the emotional narrative you’re engaged in, you may tell your friend later, “You wouldn’t believe the story about this neuroscientist, his dad had a stroke and this part of his brain went crazy, it’s called the homonculus, it’s a representation of the body inside the brain.” You’re going to remember that bit and relate it, whereas you might not if someone just told you about the homonculus without the father and the stroke and how the person telling the story felt about all that.”

As children, we often learned through stories, though we may not have realized it at the time. Aesop’s Fables taught us about the value of hard work and dedication, while Dr. Seuss’ classic books taught us about numbers, colors, and self-esteem. Lillie believes that adults also learn this way, and he works to create interesting stories around science, giving adult learners a reason to want to engage with scientific concepts. Stories can give learners a way to identify emotionally with a situation: now “climate change” is not just a collection of facts, maps, and figures, but also a young boy who lost his house to a hurricane.

“There are two kinds of learning I talk about. One is, did they learn something specific about science? And I rather think so—again, some fact or idea that’s vital to the story. The other kind of learning, and I think this is more important in the long term, is the idea that science is part of all of our lives, and that it’s something you can be entertained by and feel good about—and sad about, and all those emotional things we talked about. They’re learning that science doesn’t have to feel alienating.”

While the power of storytelling has been a trend in art and history museum exhibits in the last decade, Lillie’s success with his podcast shows that it can have powerful implications for science exhibits, even those for adults. Some science museums are trying out more exhibits that either make the visitor a “first-person” participant in the exhibit or allow the visitor to follow a protagonist through a setting. The Field Museum in Chicago currently has an exhibit called Underground Adventure that “shrinks” visitors down to insect-size in order to teach them about the world of soil microbes. The Mammoths & Mastodons exhibit, recently on view at the Museum of Science, Boston, focused on a real mummified baby woolly mammoth, Lyuba. Instead of giving dry facts about mammoth life, the exhibit talked about a day in the life of Lyuba, creating a protagonist who could help families approach information about the prehistoric world.

This concept could be the answer to teaching some of science’s more abstract topics: imagine an exhibit that lets you walk through a small model of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva as you pretend to be a small particle headed for collision. Or an interactive exhibit where you and your friends pretend to be different enzymes tasked with replicating DNA on a giant scale!

As science museums across the country become more and more educational, many of them are facing the problem of how to make science more interesting and approachable. Museum educators not only want to teach the public important information, they also want their visitors to be as excited about science as they are! Ben Lillie’s success with creating emotional responses around scientific stories may just hold the key to making science a passion for future generations.

Citation: Linett, Peter. “Interview with Ben Lillie on Science and the Story Collider.” Curator. 56. no. 1. 2013: 15-19.

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1 Comment

  • Cynthia says:

    Great column, Kacie! What is the difference in impact between giving visitors a story versus letting them create their own, I wonder? When creating a story, how do museum professionals determine what storyline has the widest appeal, to the greatest range of ages and levels of knowledge?

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