“Did you know that a long, long time ago, long before there was even pizza in Chicago, we were known for something else—dragons?”
The students laugh, knowing it’s not true, but they lean forward to hear more.
“See, here in Chicago we had the most beautiful dragons that anyone had ever seen. Dragons that had colors that people couldn’t even imagine. If you were stealthy enough and watched over by the lake, you could have seen dragons of the deepest blues, whose scales changed colors with the seasons. Over in Grant Park, you might spot dragons with scales in jewel-toned greens hiding in the trees, and white winter dragons that shimmered in the coldest weather. But then everything changed.”
As I (Ed) pause, I see the students lean in.
”My grandparents heard from their grandparents that everything changed around the time of the Industrial Revolution. After that, only the black and gray ones, and sometimes the green, survived.”
“Why? What happened to them?” a student asks.
That’s when I know I have them hooked.
When I used to teach a traditional lesson on evolution in my science classroom in Chicago Public Schools, I typically saw a room full of half-sleeping, apathetic students. But with the dragon story, I watch as everyone is completely engaged: leaning forward in their seats, laughing, and comparing ideas with classmates.
There’s brain science to support using stories help kids engage with content and create personal meaning. And our goal as educators is not simply to teach scientific facts but to find ways to connect to students so they can appreciate and understand scientific concepts.
Storytelling Helps Students Engage With Complex Ideas
Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains respond differently when we listen to a recitation of facts than when we listen to a story. Listening to facts mainly stimulates the two language-processing areas of the brain. However, when we listen to a story, additional parts of the brain are also activated—regions involved with our senses and motor movements help listeners actually “feel” the descriptions. As the neuroscientist Uri Hasson explains, “A story is the only way to activate parts of the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”
Another neuroscientist, Paul Zak, has shown that when we listen to a story, chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin are released. Dopamine increases motivation and attention, keeping listeners engaged and regulating their emotional response. Oxytocin promotes social, empathic behavior. These chemicals enable the listener to connect with the narrative, so the information is more personally meaningful.
Teaching Organic Processes With Dragons
We wanted to find a way to use storytelling to improve student understanding of the structures and processes of organisms by helping students really deeply engage with the content, so we created the lesson about dragons. Dragons might not be real, but you can use real science to examine dragon characteristics and anatomy. This was designed for a fourth-grade classroom, but we’ve also done it with students in grades 2 through 7.
We started by telling the story about dragons, and moved into learning about the purpose of basic bone structure by discussing how structures are the same and why they differ. Students explored homologous structures, learning how even a whale and a hummingbird have the same basic bone structure, and they investigated how animals develop features to adapt to their specific environments.
We discussed how movie studios use these real scientific ideas, looking at how a dragon from the How to Train Your Dragon movies was developed.
We then gave students a chance to use these ideas to invent a monster or creature that was consistent with its environment. Each student invented a creature that could live in the Chicago River, a habitat near their school, giving it characteristics specific to its environment—coloring, ability to defend itself, and ways to find prey. They used storytelling and creative writing skills to develop the creature’s backstory and shared their work with the class.
We’ve also connected this lesson with other stories, using magical creatures from the Harry Potter stories and from Greek mythology.
Learning Data Tables Through a Whodunit Story
In my (Ed’s) old classroom, I created a lesson for students to learn observation, draw conclusions, and use a data table in a white powder lab—not a very engaging lesson, I finally had to admit.
Now when we do this, we start by talking to students about their interests. For example, a recent group was excited about the Descendants films, which present heroes and villains from fairy tales living together in a new country. I set up a story in which some of the villains had committed three crimes. We found “poisons” at the scene, and the students needed to identify which villain was involved in each crime by seeing how each poison reacted with potential antidotes.
This activity is modified from one I did with high school juniors; in our current work we have done this with students in grades 2 through 7. I’ve connected this type of lesson to stories about super villains trying to take over the world and to historical events. The science is the same, but students find this much more engaging than my old lab.
I made solutions of magnesium sulfate, citric acid, and calcium hydroxide to serve as the poisons. The antidotes to the poisons—solutions of phenolphthalein, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium hydroxide—were found in the villains’ possession. All the innocent people in the story had water.
Testing Ursula’s antidote, we saw how all of the solutions interacted with it. We did the same with Jafar’s antidote, and then the Evil Queen’s. The story got the students’ attention, and they were excited to have a reason for observing the potions.
Lessons like these help students make connections between what they’re learning and their prior knowledge. Using stories thus helps students reach a deeper understanding of complex scientific ideas—they take ownership of their learning and engage in self-directed inquiry.