Just a few years ago my school principal informed me that I was required to complete more teacher training. Then came the good news. I was being sent to Greece to attend The Mars Mission Summer School sponsored by the European Union’s Erasmus+ Program and the Space Awareness Project. What better place to think about new teaching methods than on the beach in Marathon, Greece.
Experimenting with learning methods that meet the needs of different types of students was something I had done throughout my teaching career. But I had never given my students storytelling assignments and I came away from my Greek summer school experience excited to give it a try.
Storytelling assignments are a fun, interdisciplinary method to help students learn concepts that are central to a given science unit and a great way to stimulate their interest in science. I give my 7th and 8th grade students a storytelling assignment as part of our unit on the solar system. The basic idea is for students to write a story about going to Mars and colonizing the planet. But before the story writing can begin, each group must develop their story world, its characters, their goals… and obstacles they will encounter.
Each group gets a piece of flip chart paper and several 5 x 7 inch index cards. On the flip chart paper they design their Mars headquarters which must include four different buildings and two vehicles used for traveling away from the base. Each building must have a name, a short description of its purpose and a list of its contents. The index cards are used to develop the story’s characters. Students draw a picture of their characters on the front of each card and then use the back of the cards to list the character’s qualities. This can include age, gender, profession, skills, strengths, flaws, likes, dislikes and any other qualities that are relevant to their mission.
The purpose of this preparation is to encourage the students to be creative and to spend time thinking about their story before they begin writing. Students will come up with some wild ideas, such as “Can I bring my dog with me on the trip?”
During our lessons on space science we discuss the similarities and differences between the planets, interplanetary travel and the specific characteristics of Mars as they relate to the students’ stories. Each story must incorporate at least three of the concepts that we have discussed in class, such as: the atmospheric composition of Mars, the high iron content of the soil on Mars, the length of a day on Mars, temperature variation at the surface of Mars and the time needed to travel from the Earth to Mars.
Finally the writing can begin…
NASA’s Mars for Educators website contains lots of lesson plans, resources and teaching ideas. Science storytelling is just one innovative approach to stimulate student interest in science. Your students may even surprise you and get inspired to pursue a space related career path.