“If you want to raise intelligent and compassionate children, tell them stories. If you want your children to be more intelligent and more compassionate, tell them more stories!” —Albert Einstein
Imagine shrinking down to the size of a single cell and floating through the lush liquid of your bloodstream, following a red blood cell from the heart to the lungs, absorbing oxygen, and then back from the lungs to the boldly beating heart, being pumped out into the artery at a rate of nearly 50 miles an hour, flowing past T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes, the rich biotic community of spiny bacteria and viruses, flowing into the brain and sensing the electro-magnetic pulse of thought…
Take a deep breath.
Now imagine being a molecule of iron from the red blood cell, traveling back in time. That iron formed in the fusion of the sun’s blinding explosion and cooled in the jagged crust of the earth as volcanos erupted in the Kenowa Peninsula of Michigan. Then the iron cooled into pig-iron, was mined and smelted, turned into an auto engine that smoked and fumed as it ran races at NASCAR events across the country, then crashed before a cheering crowd, and was finally melted down and turned into the alloy that makes a Caterpillar front-end loader the envy of the world…
And then imagine… what… What story would you like to envision? Where does your imagination go next?
Building Blocks for Understanding
Stories are both the building blocks for creating an understanding of how things work and the glue that helps to pull together divergent ideas into a convergent whole.
In modern neurology and educational psychology, there is a growing understanding that storytelling—the personal narrative—is how we know ourselves and how we make sense of our world, how we both accommodate and assimilate new ideas, and how we make meaning. A recent article in The New York Times explored several studies regarding “Your Brain on Fiction.” Researchers have found that olfactory nerves fire when you read about well-described smells, and the gross-motor cortex lights up when you read about kicking a soccer ball. It is easy to extrapolate these ideas and imagine what your brain was doing as you read (or, go ahead and re-read) the first several paragraphs of this article.
If you want to make math and science more exciting and more visceral, stop lecturing and tell more stories.
In our technology-driven economy—globally, nationally and locally—there is a dire need for folks who can think, problem-solve, and engage in real inquiry by asking complex questions and taking the often difficult mythic journey of discovery.
In education, this is now being framed with the acronym S.T.E.M., which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. More than a trend, more than a new name for an old-school methodology, STEM education is changing how teachers and students interact by creating real-world problem solving.
Real-World Solutions for the Real World
Teachers can help students become the authors of their own stories. Using technology to help students design their own investigations is a giant leap beyond the mimeographed sheets you might have filled in when you were a kid. Allowing students to participate in space exploration as NASA collaborators or in deep sea studies through the JASON Project (jason.org), makes learning real, visceral and a whole lot more fun.
Here are two powerful local examples. Farmington High School students created plans to make their new school more energy-efficient, and then built wind and solar power generators that light, heat and cool their building. This is a life lesson that other schools could easily replicate.
Meanwhile, at Pontiac High School, students created a prescription pill reclamation process that has led to legislation in two states, and now city and state governments around the world are jumping on the bandwagon. The students involved recently won an international award from Volvo Adventures and a trip to Sweden!
Telling the story of these kinds of projects can inspire other students to ask, “What can I do to make a difference?” or “What are the problems my community faces, and how can we use STEM to solve them?” These stories serve as actual examples of students engaged in the math and problem solving of using technology while engineering real-world solutions for real-world problems.
Can this be done in poor or underprivileged communities? The answer is a resounding yes! I have seen it being done in rural Nicaragua, where I worked with a local literacy effort that had third graders teaching others to read and teenagers helping to inoculate their villages to eradicate once-common childhood diseases. And in the roughest neighborhoods of Dallas-Fort Worth, students are involved in planting rain gardens and streamside stabilization, adding their efforts to the region’s ever-present threats of flooding and drought.
What We Can Do
How can we encourage more of these kinds of efforts in our backyard? First and foremost, we need to support teachers. Instead of complaining about local schools, step up and lend a hand. Volunteer in your neighborhood, or better yet, cross the tracks. If you work in science, engineering, medicine or technology, ask a teacher how you might help design a lesson plan or participate in an investigation.
Yes, spend more money! It is amazing how much teachers spend out of their own pockets for supplies. What might your tech company donate to a school that you could adopt? And though it is a bigger problem than we can solve in this article, highly-educated teachers deserve better salaries. We need to restructure how we fund schools to balance some of the inequity in what districts pay per child. When my niece—a gifted chemistry teacher who was presenting workshops at teacher conferences fresh out of college—can get a bigger paycheck and better job security working as a chemist, she quit teaching, and honestly, who could blame her?
We also need to support parents. Parental education is one of my personal passions. Presenting family literacy nights, family science and math nights, and parenting classes is a great way to get parents positively involved in their child’s education. When parents are involved, schools succeed, period.
And finally, we need to support and encourage students. The new museum complex offers an exciting opportunity to enrich our community’s access to science and technology. Caterpillar, Bradley, ICC, and the nursing and medical schools have all made efforts in local schools through mentoring and outreach. These programs are vital, and there is room for growth.
In the end we need to create opportunities for students to find their voice, tell their stories and nurture their imaginations. Most of us have heard the first part of this quote, but it is the second half that gives me hope:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”—Albert Einstein. iBi
Brian “Fox” Ellis is a storyteller, author and educational consultant. He has keynoted conferences for the National Association of Biology Teachers and National Association of Science Teachers, as well as a dozen state and regional conferences. His latest book, Learning From the Land (Teacher Ideas Press 2012), is available at foxtalesint.com.