23 March 2020

To Make Science Relevant and Relatable, Share it in a Story

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By L.S. Gardiner

When I was a researcher, I studied fossils to discover their stories. As an educator, I infuse stories into science learning. Stories help us make sense of our world. And because I’m an advocate for sense-making, I’m here to say that stories are great and we need more of them.

Lisa presenting on science comics at the American Library Association in 2019. Credit: Lisa Gardiner

Some stories are true. Others are fiction. A story might be a first-person account of harrowing adventure to a distant place or it might be an account of amoeba antics as seen through the lens of a microscope. Stories come in many forms – from books to tweets. 


Because a story describes an experience, a person hearing the story gets to have that experience. For example, stories about the process of scientific investigation can help people envision what it’s like to be a scientist. This could help counteract stereotypes about mad scientists or that we all wear lab coats. 

How can we help our stories be accessible? Below are some strategies that help me. There is no one right way to tell a story, so these strategies aren’t a prescription, just ideas to consider.

  • Consider the frame for the story: Think about where your story begins and where it ends so your audience gets to discover through the story. 
  • Consider your audience: Think about what they might already know. This can help frame a story in a way that connects with people. 
  • Set your story in time and space: If you are just telling someone facts, then place and time are optional, but they are essential if you are telling a story. This helps people feel like they are right there in the story. 
  • Characters and their experiences are essential: Put the characters in the foreground of your story and the science ideas and concepts in the background. Note that the characters don’t have to be human. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more stories with Earth as the main character? 
  • Find your storyteller voice: Your storyteller voice is what you bring to the story through the way you tell it. This is especially important if you are communicating who you are and where you are coming from as part of your story.
  • Analogies can help explain science: Consider using analogies that connect the science concepts to something people already know. For example, tectonic plates slip on the asthenosphere as you could slip on a banana peel. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets the idea across. 

– L.S. Gardiner, PhD MFA is a science educator, writer, and illustrator at the UCAR Center for Science Education in Boulder, Colorado.