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STEPS: Where the Drama of Science Meets the Science of Drama

By Brad McLain
From Dimensions
July/August 2014

“Once language was available to describe social scenarios from memory and anticipations, we became Homo narratus. We have become psychological beings who are incapable of not narrating our experiences both to ourselves and each other.” —Alan Parry, 1997

People are natural storytellers. We are also natural story hearers. Narrative (story) is the preferred way humans structure complex knowledge. It’s also the oldest way we share both cultural and personal information. We are still addicted to narrative—think of blogs, books, TV, radio, movies, theater, and even video games. Yet curiously, education underuses narrative—a missed opportunity at best and a gross misconstruction of our educational systems at worst.

The need for narrative
The basic truth of people’s need for narrative has long been obvious to our very best educators, both formal and informal, on an intuitive level. But our education systems have not embraced, much less prioritized, the use of story to communicate information, forge personal relevance to content, or see the world and our place within it in new and unexpected ways.

The use of narrative as a critical learning framework is not part of any standard, test, or educator training, an observation especially true of science and technology education with its tunnel-vision focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) content and skills development.

But in this educational darkness, a candle burns: informal science education. The freedom of instructional design is the key. Informal learning programs can and have seized the power of story for a vast menagerie of innovative learning approaches that dramatically communicate science and technology.

The STEPS project
In 2009, I became the leader of a (U.S.) National Science Foundation–funded project called the Science Theater Education Programming System (STEPS), created by the Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative (XSci) at the University of Colorado in partnership with ASTC and over 20 other organizations, including eight museums. (A complete list is available in the final report)

The STEPS project focused on creating multimedia-enhanced, museum-based, theatrical science productions for museum visitors of all ages and a new tool, the STEPS software, which enables museum educators to modify and perform three existing shows or design their own live performances on any topic. The software includes show elements, scripts, background science information, online tutorials, and set, prop, and costume information. (You can download the software for free here.) In effect, we created new ways to harness the power of story in service to science education.

In this article, I want to point out two very different aspects of story (story for education and story for identity) that aren’t necessarily obvious, because most people tend to think about story as a nice (not rigorous), touchy-feely (not rational), fun (not serious) approach to learning.

Aspect 1: Story for education
Part of the STEPS work was an in-depth exploration of storytelling. We delved deeply into plot, setting, character, the hook, the turn, the twist, and the union of science content with narrative flow. We also formulated audience interaction templates to accommodate everything from traditional “stand-and-deliver” shows to audience participation and story-determination scenarios with multiple endings. It was, in a word, illuminating.

We chose astrobiology as the STEM content because it is popular with the public and multidisciplinary, giving the team room for theatrical creativity. We created three theater shows:

Planet Hunter (15–20 minutes) is about the search for extra-solar planets and has a single live actor performing with two virtual characters. (Virtual characters are prerecorded actors or animated characters that the live presenters interact with and in part control.)

Extremo-WHAT? (20–30 minutes) is about the search for extreme life on Earth, with audience participation to help direct the story. Four virtual characters interact with a single live actor.

Mars Interrupted (30–40 minutes) is about the possibilities of finding life on Mars versus Europa and features two live actors and several virtual characters on a spacecraft mission.

The final report on XSci’s website describes each of these shows in more detail.

Creating the shows
Preproduction involved researching our audience’s interest in and knowledge of astrobiology, learning the science and informal pedagogy of astrobiology, and writing. Of paramount importance to each story was character. This proved to be more critical than the science content—a fact many museum-based theatrical programs get wrong. Audiences need to relate to the characters or the content won’t matter. In addition, we went through several rounds of audience testing for the dramatic plot lines. Nothing beats audience feedback, whether on simple read-throughs or full dress rehearsals, for discovering if your show is engaging.

Production included compiling the video and audio elements in the STEPS software; creating sets, props, and costumes; blocking (the process of planning positions, movements, timing, stunts, and other on-stage action); and then rehearsing and adjusting. An important tip is to welcome frequent and substantive change at any point in the creative process. Although painful, or even expensive, it can make the difference between your audience learning something or walking out in the middle.

Post-production included polishing the shows; developing versions to give each set of presenters flexibility for inserting their style into both the presentation elements and the media elements; and marketing. We also refined the “on-thefly” story modification feature, whereby presenters can change the direction of a story in real-time based on audience input—something traditional theater doesn’t often include, especially where multimedia is involved. When wielded well, this element made for an exciting, seamless combination of media and live performance, but using it was a skill that had to be learned.

Evaluating the impact
Our evaluation, conducted by UXR Consulting, revealed interesting audience reactions. For example, Planet Hunter audiences showed overall content knowledge gains in line with the learning objectives. A sample of 82 respondents in grades 3, 4, and 5 were also asked open-ended questions about what they liked best and least about the show. The mix of live actors with compelling multimedia elements was clearly a winning combination.

To no one’s surprise, when done well, story can touch people on both intellectual and emotional levels and forge personal relevance to the subject matter. Story has the potential to powerfully transform knowledge into understanding, which is a hallmark of learning experiences provided through museums and science centers.

Aspect 2: Story for identity
Perhaps the most significant role of stories in our project came in the form of identity development. We created the project deliverables with a team leadership process that distributed leader responsibilities (and thus creativity) throughout subteams on a rotating basis. It’s a tall order to ask informal educators to become dramatists and screenwriters. We had a steep learning curve that focused on professional development in the skills of both leadership and theatrical production.

While our education team created the project deliverables, an independent research team examined how they worked within this team leadership framework and how the STEPS project affected their sense of professional identity. Some people thrived in this environment; others struggled. In most cases, however, team members experienced personal growth in terms of professional identity, as revealed through their personal stories. According to identity theory, our identities take the form of stories. During STEPS, new stories of identity enhancement emerged.

Our findings challenge traditional thinking about the purpose of professional development for informal science educators. Our research suggests that professional development focused only on content and skills is not enough if we hope to reduce attrition and establish informal science education as a destination career. Staff development must include continual enhancement of professional identity. This aspect of the STEPS project resulted in practical recommendations for transforming how we train and support informal science educators. (See the final report on XSci’s website.)

Far more than simply making science more accessible, engaging, or memorable, stories have the power to change lives. Stories can transform personal trajectories through their connections to our identities—whether by encountering science in new and unexpected ways or forging new opportunities, roles, and pathways for what we might do with our lives. When learning changes who we are, or who we want to become, we call it inspiration. Inspiration is where informal science education excels.

Brad McLain is co-director of XSci at the Center for STEM Learning, University of Colorado Boulder. XSci organized a STEM conference exploring experiential learning and science identity in Denver, July 29–August 1, 2014.