Return to site

STEM Students Must Tell Stories

I loved He Jiang’s Harvard commencement speech. I liked it because he provides a great beacon for young Chinese kids to follow, but I liked it even more because he told a great story. And, his story was even more memorable for me because he is a scientist – a STEM student – the type of student at the type of school that many parents dream of for their children. His message, itself, underscores the importance of storytelling in the sciences: he tells us that it’s not just innovation that is important but the ability to communicate practical STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) knowledge to the people that need it. But just two days later, I was reminded that He Jiang storytelling skills are still rare among the tens of thousands of students studying math, science, and engineering in the US. As I was finishing dinner with an old friend who is dean of engineering at a well-respected US university, our conversation shifted to the growing number of Chinese students who are filling their engineering program. “About 1/3 of the students from China come in well-prepared. They’re great – sharp, strong basic skills, and able to excel independently. But the other 2/3 of the students really worry us. They’re not coming in prepared to interpret the material they read, to synthesize information, problem-solve real-life problems in a team, and present their findings.” In short, these kids can’t research, compose, and tell a strong “story”.Add paragraph text here.

Getting Into School Means Telling Stories

My friend’s students are the ones who’ve already gotten into a good school. I’ve seen even more derailed from a chance that their dream schools at the application stage by poor storytelling skills. Leading business media, Business Insider, recently cited the Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Reed College when he offered two important tips for applicants to selective schools: “tell me a good story” and create essays that directly answer the “so what” question. He stresses that “storytellers own the world” and the story needs to be able to tell us why we should care about it and about you.

I see a growing number of high student heading to admissions consultants and agents for help with application essays.  As the former COO of one of these companies, I remember seeing kids, particularly, STEM-oriented kids, coming back from their admissions coaching sessions with an initial sense of relief. “Phew, someone is going help me write my essays.”  Unfortunately, this didn’t solve the problem – more often it just postpones the storytelling task – pushing it into the future when the student has even less time and help to learn and prepare.Add paragraph text here.

College application essays and interviews provide great opportunities for kids to think about their “stories” and how they’re going to tell them.  For many, this is the first type that they’ve had to do this – but certainly not the last.  In a year or so, they’ll need to tell their story to their new roommates, their professors, and sooner or later their future employers.   More important, an agent or admissions consultant may be able to help write the essays, but students will need to handle application interviews on their own.  Like the application process, itself, telling these stories well, particularly in English, means starting early.

Succeeding in STEM Courses Means Telling Stories

But for the aspiring STEM student, telling a decent story in English isn’t just about getting accepted by a school and meeting some classmates. The core elements of storytelling are increasingly part of US high school and college STEM course requirements. William Zinsser who taught writing at Yale for decades explores this growing movement to promote “writing across the curriculum” in his book “Writing to Learn.” Through interviews with high school teachers and college professors, Zinsser found that integrating writing and storytelling into math and science courses significantly improves how students are able to understand concepts, organize their thoughts, and present ideas. He points to Einstein, Primo Levi, and Darwin as examples of storytellers who moved scientific concepts from their abstract research to accessible, broadly understood ideas.

Zinsser cites numerous examples where professors are adding writing requirements and storytelling assignments to their tests and evaluations for science and math students.  While many universities have reading and writing assistance programs to help students that lag behind in these core communication skills, sharp increases in international students on many campus often means these resources can’t keep up with demand.

What are These STEM Storytelling Skills

So, what are these storytelling skills?  Nearly every kid remembers a great story or movie, but he may have a harder time pinning down what made it memorable and an even harder time applying similar techniques to applications or school work (particularly in a second language and different culture).  Several common skills are at the root of good storytelling:

Connect with Your Audience.  This means listening, reading, and learning who they are and what they’re likely to believe.  He Jiang knew that his audience was largely American, probably with limited knowledge of China, but a deep emotional connection with the immigrant success story – poor boy from the countryside works hard to find success in a new land.  They could relate to his story and were ready to listen and believe it.

Capture Attention Quickly and Vividly. Action, visual images, numbers, and personal stories are all details that capture a reader or listeners attention.  Good storytelling grabs the reader, listener, or viewer quickly. It paints a picture fast, but leaves plenty of questions.  In his first 30 seconds, He Jiang already hooks you with a vivid, painful, personal scene from his childhood.  He uses simple language that shows rather than tells.

Use a Sequence of Events to Create a Journey.  Use a logical, connected, sequence of events to take the listener on a journey. 

Use Conflict to Engage Your Audience.  Memorable stories have conflicts – a problem or struggle – that needs to be resolved.  He Jiang needed to survive a snake bite.  A household cleaning problem may need to be resolved – perhaps with a chemistry lab result. 

Build in a Clear Take-away Message. Readers, listeners – professors and admissions officers – all need to come away with a memorable take-away message. As the Reed College admissions head said, good stories are crafted to answer the “so what” questions.

From Kindergartener to Storyteller

Developing storytelling skills doesn’t need to wait until high school. And, by the time a child enters university, he’ll already be too late. Several family learning habits can help parents build storytelling into children’s basic skills --- long before they consider steering toward the sciences or humanities.

  • Become a Strong, Eager Reader.  Great stories and childhood classics introduce young children to the very fundamentals of storytelling.  Fairy tales, Disney stories, Curious George, Dr. Seuss, Paddington Bear, and hundreds of others expose children to concepts of character, setting, and conflict.  Reading aloud to your children and discussing their books lets them see the pieces of these stories.  To show how vivid languages captures attention, you can add voices and sounds to your reading.  Use questions to prompt thinking about what makes the story memorable, exciting, or scary.
  • Use Writing to Develop Thinking.  Parents ask me, “Whoa, my kid can barely spell. How is she supposed to write?”  But the value “writing” actually begins earlier than we see.  Kids certainly draw before they can actually write, and drawing provides them with a comfortable written form for organizing and communicating their thoughts.  Very young children can start the writing process by drawing you a picture and telling you about it.  Later, they can add names and words.  Asking children to put different scenes from a story in order or draw you something that happened to them can be an early step toward organizing and presenting ideas in a sequence.
  • Practice – Make Storytelling a Regular Home Activity. We create many small storytelling opportunities for our kindergarten-aged son.  We encourage him to tell stories (in Chinese or English) to relatives and friends.  Some are stories of experiences that he has had. Some are stories that we’ve read together.   Instead of memorizing lines or portions of the story, children can focus on retelling the important parts.  Questions can help guide them to create more vivid descriptions, identify conflicts, and present solutions.  As they become more comfortable thinking about stories they can begin honing in on their messages and take-aways.
All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!