Applying the Power of Stories to Excite Students About Science
Learning about States of Matter during a potions class in a Harry Potter-inspired camp. These girls are reacting to a dry-ice experiment that caused the beaker to bubble over. (Courtesy Amy Schwartzbach-Kang/The Laboratory)
Ed Kang loved science growing up and ended up earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience. But he left academia to teach high school over 10 years ago, believing one of the reasons students at neighborhood schools (non-magnet) in Chicago dislike science is that they don’t have teachers who are passionate about the subject. While teaching at a high-poverty school on Chicago’s South Side, Kang met his future wife, Amy Schwartzbach-Kang, an English teacher. Amy grew up in a family full of scientists, but found the subject dull, rote and uninspiring.
“There’s so many cool things you can do [with science],” Amy said, “and I always wondered if you approached it differently, if someone like me would want to be involved.”
One year, Amy and Ed taught the same group of high school students and decided to experiment with an interdisciplinary unit. In her English class, Amy taught “Chew on This,” a book about fast food and its influence on kids. While the students discussed nutrition science and how it related to their lives, Ed was teaching them in science class about macromolecules in food and how the body absorbs proteins and carbohydrates.
“When we were able to do that type of learning we realized it was really helpful, so we were interested in doing more things like that,” Amy said. They noticed that students who were often checked out in class paid more attention, bringing up things they’d learned in science during the English discussion, for example.
But the schedule and structure of traditional high school makes those types of collaborations difficult. Many teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly focused on test scores because of the consequences of poor performance. The type of inventive, cross-disciplinary teaching Amy and Ed wanted to do didn’t seem to fit into those priorities.
STARTING THE LABORATORY
Like so many teachers around the country, Amy and Ed started a side hustle, although rather than working for someone else in another field, they wanted the freedom to teach how they believed kids learn best. At The Laboratory, Amy and Ed used their unique strengths to develop a science camp based on the stories kids love. Their first creation immersed kids in the world of Harry Potter, weaving in science and engineering along the way.
“Everything we do, they feel like they’re immersed in the word,” Amy said. “We really try to make them feel like they’re a character in the book and then we use the science and math to support what they’re doing.”
On day one of camp, kids between the ages of 8 and 12 enter The Laboratory through a brick wall -- like wizarding students on their way to the Hogwarts train. They don wizarding robes, are sorted into houses, and spend the first day designing their wands and using circuits to make them light up. They even learn spells based in Latin.
“Our philosophy is that we’re trying to attract those who could really care less about science and chemistry, but they really love these books,” Kang said.
Students are often attracted to the camp for the immersive world and creative play, but stay for the science. As the week progresses they talk about genetics and try to breed their own Pygmy Puffs, like the Weasley twins. Or they are given engineering wizarding challenges to solve in teams, like to design a net to catch an array of Harry Potter creatures -- each a different size and with different magical abilities -- falling from an established height.
“They’re given these scenarios based on the world that they’re going to use engineering to problem-solve,” Amy said. While the two teachers prefer to let the kids tinker, they try to lay out some basic steps so the frustration point isn’t too high. This is supposed to be fun -- and educational -- after all.
“It took me a long time to embrace this way of teaching,” Ed said. “I’m starting to realize, especially when parents embraced it, that this is actually a great way of teaching.”
Even now, Ed has a tendency to put too much content into his demonstrations. But that’s where his wife provides a good balance, reminding him to let the story lead and to get students working with their hands sooner rather than later.
The pair started with Harry Potter camp and soon began expanding into Choose Your Own Zombie Apocalypse camp, Percy Jackson camp and others. As demand grew, Ed decided to quit his teaching job and work on designing experiences for the camp full time. Amy still teaches high school, but finds The Laboratory work essential for her sanity.
“I was getting very burnt out, but this has invigorated me and has helped me see again why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she said. She’s even trying to bring some of what works so well at The Laboratory back to her classroom.
Last year she worked with students who have special needs, co-teaching in a trigonometry class. She’s constantly trying to relate the material back to the real world and encourages students to rewrite the backstory of their “story problems” into something more interesting. It’s a small step, but she’s seeing it make a difference.
“We really do want to bring this into the classroom because most of the kids who come to our camp have the means to come to our camp,” Ed said. “You don’t really need to have a Ph.D. to have these lessons. It’s the idea of integrating science within your curriculum.”
In fact, using stories to get kids excited about everything from computer coding to engineering is gaining popularity with educators around the country. Amy and Ed hope some of that creativity will reach the disadvantaged kids Amy still teaches in Chicago.
SPREADING THIS IDEA TO CHICAGO SCHOOLS
Some of The Laboratory’s best ambassadors to the schools are the kids and parents who have participated during spring, summer and winter breaks. Erica Smith’s son, Whitman, attended Harry Potter camp several summers ago and loved it.
“He talked about it for weeks; he told all of his teachers about it,” Smith said. When he told his art teacher about the projects he’d done, she got excited, too, eventually writing a grant to integrate science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) within the K-8 curriculum schoolwide. She then used some of the money to fund a field trip to The Laboratory for the whole class. Erica Smith went along as a parent chaperone and was impressed.
Ed Kang designed an experience tailored to the curriculum Whitman’s class was studying about the pilgrims. He explained to the students how the Mayflower wasn’t a well-designed ship and actually had to head back to port for repairs when it set off. He described some of the physics behind seaworthy boats, and tasked them with designing a better model, using only limited supplies.
“There were a lot of different iterations because it reinforced that STEAM/maker mindset that they’ve been learning at school about the evolution of your design,” Smith said.
Smith is a biochemist and is familiar with the traditional ways of teaching science because she lived it. She doesn’t think that model capitalizes on young students' natural curiosity and energy.
“I think the reality is that students remember experiences,” Smith said. “They retain what they learn through experience much better than what they retain through lecture and note taking.”
That’s been true for her son, Whitman, who acknowledges he likes science and does well in science classes, too. But even years after the Harry Potter camp, he remembers mixing chemicals to make dragon fire and using blow torches to make his own galleons (the money from Harry Potter).
“I think school’s learning system is pretty good, but I think if we incorporated more of that hands-on learning it would make it: a) more understandable, and b) we learn more,” Whitman said. He’s a kid with an active imagination and love for fantasy, as well as an interest in science, and he thought blending the two was a great idea.
Ed Kang hopes that as more educators focus on the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize the engineering, problem-solving and thinking skills embedded in the experiences he creates, that more teachers will want to partner with him. He’d love to help coach other teachers so that they can bring this teaching approach to kids from every socioeconomic background in school.
“It was really difficult for me to think about adding art, all this imagination, and literature into my lessons,” Kang admitted. “I never thought that should drive science.”
But he can’t deny that his passion for science wasn’t enough to interest the kids he worked with in traditional classrooms. They weren’t doing that much better, they still tuned him out, and no matter how interesting he thought his examples were, they didn’t. His experiences designing for The Laboratory have made him a convert to the power of storytelling to draw students into science. And he stresses that teachers can take small steps toward this kind of interdisciplinary learning.
“The science knowledge is not the most important part here,” Kang emphasizes to elementary school teachers who may not have his background. “We’re trying to get teachers to understand they don’t have to be ginormous experiments.”
Many opportunities for interdisciplinary learning exist in elementary school classrooms that aren’t nearly as involved or elaborate as what The Laboratory does. Teachers just need a little more space and time, and a little less test score pressure, to tap into their inventive sides.
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