Science as Storytelling for Teaching the Nature of Science

This activity has been Peer Reviewed by the participants at the 2007 Preparing Teachers to Teach Earth Science Workshop at Carleton College.

This activity was authored by B.R. Bickmore and D.A. Grandy of Brigham Young University.
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Initial Publication Date: May 2, 2007


In this exercise, students are assigned to read an essay called "Science As Storytelling," discuss it in the classroom, and complete some short, in-class writing assignments. The essay addresses the common misconception that science is (or is at least pretty close to) a body of facts about the way the world works that scientists discover and students memorize.

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Learning Goals

The goals of this exercise are
  1. for students to come out with a more sophisticated conception of the nature of science, and
  2. for students to become more able to critically and insightfully address science-religion conflict. In addition, the short writing assignments give them some practice in that area.

Context for Use

This could be used in any introductory science class at a college/university, or possibly even a high school. There is no limitation on class size, and no special equipment is needed. The students need to read an essay and answer the associated questions for thought before coming to the class discussion. The discussion should take about 1 hour.

Description and Teaching Materials

Here is the essay for use in the "Science as Storytelling" program, including several "Questions for Thought." It may be freely distributed for non-profit use.
Science as Storytelling (Microsoft Word 170kB Apr13 07)

Science is presented as a literary form that provides useful explanations of the natural world. These explanations (stories) must be solidly based in observation, but they always involve considerable creativity and are always tentative to one degree or another. Certain "rules" are given for what can be considered a "scientific" story, and what makes one scientific story "better" than another. In some cases, counterexamples are given from the history of science to show that these "rules" are human inventions that scientists have decided upon for practical reasons, not because it has to be that way. A couple of the "rules" are designed to help students understand why scientists have chosen to exclude the supernatural from their stories. There are very practical reasons for this, and even very religious scientists agree to these rules when they are going about their scientific work.

One thing that is different about this approach is how science-religion conflict is handled. We tell the students that if you have one system of thought that disallows supernatural explanations, and one that allows them you have to expect there will be conflicts between the two, once in a while. Some other approaches tend to emphasize the idea that science and religion don't necessarily conflict, and leave it at that. However, conservative religious students who might have to deal with the most science-religion conflicts would perceive this as an attempt to persuade them to join some more liberal religions. Such an approach generally will not work with such students. To read the experience of another Geology instructor (Ann Bykerk-Kauffman, Chico State University) who has used "Science as Storytelling" to help address science-religion conflict in the classroom, visit her SERC page.

The students are challenged in the discussion and writing assignments to make up their own minds about whether they think each of these rules is a good idea. Most of the time they will agree that the rules are a good idea, but even when they don't agree, they report that they can see why someone else might come to the opposite conclusion. Many also report an increased willingness to consider scientific ideas that they previously would not have given a hearing.

For more information about the rationale behind this program and the results of an evaluation study, see two papers to be published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education. Pre-publication manuscripts of these papers can be downloaded by clicking on the links in the references to follow.

Berry R. Bickmore, Kirsten R. Thompson, David A. Grandy & Teagan Tomlin (2009) Commentary: On Teaching the Nature of Science and the Science-Religion Interface, Journal of Geoscience Education, 57:3, 168-177, DOI: 10.5408/1.3544261

Barry R. Bickmore, Kirsten R. Thompson, David A. Grandy & Teagan Tomlin (2009) Science As Storytelling for Teaching the Nature of Science and the Science-Religion Interface, Journal of Geoscience Education, 57:3, 178-190, DOI: 10.5408/1.3544263

Learn more about the course for which this activity was developed.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students who come in with a bad attitude toward science due to their religious beliefs need to see complete honesty and humility on the part of the instructor so that they can open up to the possibilities presented in scientific theories. Be careful what you say! Any hint of derision (intended or not) will shut them down. Be willing to allow that a rational person could decide to reject some of the assumptions that undergird scientific inquiry, and they will feel more free to consider them.

Elizabeth Nagy-Shadman and Mike Rivas have also contributed an "Ordeal by Check" activity for small classes or labs that goes quite well with the theme of "Science as Storytelling."


I read their writing assignments and give several test questions that address the nature of science.