Using Storytelling to Teach Fusion in the Classroom

"How do we teach ten-year-old students a complex topic like fusion? Being a teacher for 23 years, I like to take on new challenges and tasks that appear impossible to other teachers," says Patrícia Martins Raposo-Weinberger, who teaches at the Graz International Bilingual School in Austria.

To spark the enthusiasm of students and build the new generation of scientists, we have to start at a very young age. I advocate that physics can be taught to students at any school age (even Kindergarten) and I try to make that a reality in my lessons.

What's the 'hook'?

There are many strategies that a teacher can use. For me, the best approaches are performing experiments and storytelling. Both strategies are quite powerful tools to hook the students’ interest in physics and science in general. Experiments offer a more hands-on approach to complex scientific topics, whereas storytelling attracts the students when the narrative is challenging, creative and relates to their daily life.

We started our physics lessons at the start of the school year: a new subject for almost all students and in a new language (English). Teaching in an international school and having students with a multicultural background is a complex challenge: how do we accommodate the previous knowledge from our international students? And how do we address complex topics like fusion?

Experiments offer a more hands-on approach to complex scientific topics, whereas storytelling attracts the students when the narrative is challenging, creative and relates to their daily life.

The power of storytelling

Storytelling is an powerful tool. When we talk about famous physicists, I start with the example of Madame Curie. First, because she won two Nobel prizes in areas students perceive as difficult and male-dominated. Second, because hers is a wonderful example of perseverance, hard work and dealing with failure. A difficult and important lesson for the students is that being a scientist is to fail one hundred times to succeed once. Like Thomas Edison wonderfully stated about his work with the light bulb: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”.

One strategy is to have the students assume the role of storytellers and discover more about scientists like Faraday, Ampere or Tesla in the process. This strategy of humanizing science makes the student understand that all of us have the possibility to be the next Volta or Joule if we put in the hard work and constantly develop our knowledge. It also teaches the importance of team work in science, to think critically and to always ask why. These social skills are relevant to all areas, not only physics.

Thanks to storytelling, I have students who now know that the Celsius scale was not invented by someone named Celsius, that Fahrenheit “improved” the temperature scale proposed by Römer, and that Faraday had no formal education but became one the most important scientists in the field of electromagnetism.

Adding a personal touch

Personal stories also have an important role when it comes to learning physics. Sharing them in the classroom is an important tool for introducing new concepts and definitions using daily life situations and examples. Storytelling builds a bridge between facts and understanding, and it debunks difficult concepts and definitions in physics. Last year we participated in the European Space Talks (ESA) and we discussed future missions to Mars with Member of the Board of the Austrian Space Forum Mr. Willibald Stumptner, and analog astronaut (a person who conducts activities in simulated space conditions) Mr. João Lousada. The students found their personal stories about the troubles of trying spacesuits in a desert mission and the personal struggles of becoming an analog astronaut to be the most interesting ones. Bringing the scientist to the classroom and listening to their stories is another powerful tool for building scientific knowledge. Do the students remember all the scientific concepts discussed during the workshop? Obviously not. But a foundation was built during the workshop and it is the role of the teacher to use this momentum to develop the students’ interest in science.

From space exploration to anime

Space exploration and future energy sources are excellent approaches to tackle the topic of fusion in the classroom. It starts with a picture of our Sun and, of course, the famous picture of the black hole, along with the story behind this image and the cooperative and astonishing work to make it a reality. These two pictures are the beginning and the end of an astonishing cosmic journey: the life cycle of a star. Nebula, supernova and black hole images have a powerful role in this story. Concepts of energy, temperature, heat and energy transfer are presented and discussed. Even Japanese anime character Dragon Ball’s son Goku can be referenced to introduce and explain the concept of fusion. Finally, astronomy and space exploration are exciting and current topics that engage students in creative visual storytelling for science.

Storytelling can be used to introduce a topic, to illustrate a law or a theory, and to attract less-motivated students. Never underestimate the power of a good, simple and enthusiastic story and its effect in students’ interest for physics. Starring Newton's Apple or introducing Lord Kelvin's crazy experiments, this physics story is definitely to be continued...