Can We Teach Science with Fiction?

I’m a scientist. But over these past few years, I’ve discovered that I’m a writer, too. This side of myself surprised me, though it really shouldn’t have—if you’d asked me when I was 6 or 8 or 11 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said “writer.” But then around Grade 8, I did a project on whale communication and somehow ended up becoming an ecologist studying birds, frogs and marsupials. That’s how it happens, I guess.

As an undergrad, I never realised how much of science is writing. I envisioned a career of exotic fieldwork and experimental design and gel-running, and although I do those things from time to time, I spend most of my working life (the part not feeding marsupials or cleaning their poo, anyway) reading and writing. Publishing papers, applying for grants, reporting to stakeholders—these are jobs that must be done and done well to succeed in science. In fact, there are countless metrics to calculate your scientific value based on how much you publish, where you publish and how many times your work has been cited by others in research papers, on Twitter, or in the media. So yes, I’m a writer.

But I have to admit, academic papers sucked the soul out of me and any desire to read and write I may have harboured. Between 2004–2007, I don’t think I read anything that wasn’t a journal article (except maybe the Harry Potters), and I’m pretty sure that every chapter in my PhD thesis started with the same sentence. This was not the creative, inspired writing that I’d dreamed of as a child. So when my daughter was born and I had a few years away from university life, I reacquainted myself with fiction. I read books for pleasure – stories that had nothing to do with the metabolic constraints of tadpoles or the jumping performance of metamorphic frogs. Stories that nonetheless affected me, made me see the world differently, gave me perspective. I also began writing my own stories and blogging regularly.

Now that was reading; that was writing.

I returned to academic life in 2013, but I’m not the same scientist that I was before. Now, I look for evocative, clever word usage in whatever I’m reading, and writing and editing has become one of my favourite parts of the job. But I’m not satisfied with just that. What I want to know is, can we use fiction to:

  1. improve science writing and
  2. teach science itself?

Most undergraduate and post-graduate science programs teach basic academic and essay writing, but reading and discussing fiction could show students what it is that makes great stories great – engaging and memorable. Writing fiction can give students the writing practice that’s critical for improvement and encourage them to approach ideas from different angles. I think we can teach important scientific concepts through stories, too; and no, not just science fiction stories. I’m interested in the idea that science might be integrated into stories just like spinach can be baked into chocolate brownies (yes, it’s possible!)—I love science, and I also love spinach, but I recognise that not everyone feels that way.

On a physical level, learning happens when information is gathered from the environment and placed into context, producing a lasting change in the brain. In other words – learning requires that we comprehend and that we remember. Like other art forms, fiction uses analogy and example to link information with emotion, encouraging viewers to see the same information in a different way and in the context of the human experience. Students learn better when they’re interested in the subject matter and when they see how it relates to them and their world (but particularly to them). In this regard, fiction is entertaining, and gives ideas and information a wider vantage that encourages emotional connection and big-thinking. As a supplement to traditional forms of science teaching, I think fiction could motivate, inspire and augment learning in young scientists.

Thank you to the ASC for awarding me a 2014 Professional Development grant, which supported my enrolment in an online fiction writing course through Stanford University. The 10-week course was exceptional. I learned the fundamentals of good writing (plot, character, point of view), but most importantly, I gained valuable feedback on my own short fiction. I hope to get some of my creative work published this year—and yes, it’s chock full of science.