“For many students, science can seem dark, murky, and unconquerable,” says EDC’s Jacqueline Miller, a molecular biologist who develops high school science curricula using narrative stories to make learning more relevant, exciting, and engaging.
“Kids love diseases, disgusting stuff, and explosions,” she explains. “We develop programs that teach science topics through exciting stories. For example, the London cholera epidemic of the 1830s was pretty gross. And even if the kids haven’t read Dickens, they can learn about the epidemic in a science curriculum that teaches molecular biology, epidemiology, and ecology using engaging and interesting events and stories.”
Before joining EDC, Miller taught virology, parasitology, and other courses at Harvard Medical School, and she worked in the biotech industry researching cervical cancer and the human papilloma virus. She is principal investigator of Foundation Science, a comprehensive high school curriculum that uses narrative stories to inject chemistry, physics, biology, and earth sciences lessons with new energy and life.
What drew you to a career in biology?
My dad was a doctor. He was a radiologist who worked for the Veterans Administration. He liked to talk about his early days in medicine, delivering babies in urban Baltimore. He’d make house calls and yell up the stairwell, “Anybody having a baby up there?” This was back in the 1930s. He had some great stories.
When I went to college, I majored in English and found that I really liked writing. But I really liked biology and was hooked on research, so that’s when I knew what I wanted to do.
Why is studying science so intimidating for some students?
Even today, as much as science is in the news and on popular shows like CSI, when students get to the classroom, they find it’s not at all like what they see on television. Even if they had great elementary and middle school science classes that excited them, they get to high school and a lot of it is memorization, lecture, and labs. There’s no relevance to their lives. So they just shut down.
How does using narrative in science lessons make the learning more exciting?
Everyone likes a good story. I think back to my father’s stories. He would describe the early days of radiology when a doctor would put his own arm in the path of an X-ray beam to test its strength and how a lot of those doctors died of cancer. It made the history of scientific discovery more human.
What we did in Insights in Biology, and what we’re doing now in Foundation Science, is to use narrative as a form of creative nonfiction to draw students into science topics. We find a story to start off every lesson, which we call a “Learning Experience.”
For example, there was a movie made in the 1980s called The Return of Martin Guerre, based on a true story about a man who returns to his medieval village after being away for a time. The villagers question his identity. It’s a fascinating story, and we can use it to introduce topics such as genetics. So students get engaged in life in the 1500s as well as the genetics of the times, and they learn about modern molecular techniques. They get the whole story—the narrative, the science of medieval times, and modern science—so they can decide whether or not the man was Martin Guerre. The story forms the backbone of the conceptual understanding.
What was high school science education like for you growing up?
I was raised in Washington, D.C., and science was not a big part of my education in school (which was probably why I went to college for English at first). I did have a good biology teacher in ninth grade, Mrs. Hall. But we played a lot of pranks in that class. I remember a friend and I lowered the monkey skeleton out the window and dangled it in front of the Latin class below. We ended up in the principal’s office. But my teacher was pretty tolerant. One of my most vivid memories was dissecting a worm. It was like a little package, opening it up, and it made the learning fun.