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Teaching "Storytelling and Science": An Interview with Kim Savelson

By Jenae Cohn

The PWR Newsletter team had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kim Savelson about her new PWR 91 course, "Storytelling and Science," which she taught in spring quarter 2018. Learn more about how Kim and her students debated the definition of "story," found their own compelling science stories, and discovered the rewards and challenges of crafting powerful stories.

Why were you so interested in teaching a class about intersections between science and storytelling?

I was eager to teach “Storytelling and Science” because I have a longstanding passion for storytelling—I teach it in all my classes—and, I have also taught in the NSC program since its inception. I knew that storytelling and narrative had been taught in some of the NSC classes, as sort of sub-units, to help students understand how to better communicate science issues with non-expert audiences. But there had not yet been a class entirely devoted to this approach. I felt it was time we put a spotlight on story/telling and science—bring it to the forefront so that students could develop story skills in a much more extensive way.

What did you most enjoy about teaching "Science and Storytelling?"

There are so many things I enjoyed about teaching this course. I loved discussing the readings about story art and story technique with students, some of who were learning about story structure in the classroom for the first time. We had fun delving into all kinds of readings about story—from studying Pixar “secrets” to narrative theory—and we even debated how to define story quite a bit!  We also took on thorny issues in narrative representation, like who has the right to tell what story. We came at story from so many angles. When it came time to create their own Student Choice Story Projects, it was fascinating for all of us to become involved in the myriad of science-related topics that were pursued. The challenge of how to craft a compelling “story” was immense, for each student, and we all had fun supporting and helping to develop each project. 

Which pieces of student work or which moments in the class did you think were particularly noteworthy?

I really think each project that came out of Storytelling and Science was noteworthy. For instance, one project was a children’s book that told the story of the Pertussis Vaccine and the women scientists who were behind the discovery. Another project was an article about race, genetics and identity in the world of 23me; this story wove science and personal accounts together with current critiques of the role that such genetic tests are playing in our lives. Still another project was a cartoon story, created to persuade Tibetan refugees in Northern India to treat TB with antibiotics. This cartoon had to carefully manage the cultural and religious beliefs of its audience, who do not see allopathic medicine as a compelling option. I could sing the praises of every project that students worked on for our class, they were all as innovative and fascinating as these three. The fact that each student chose their own project topic, made the story projects diverse and personally meaningful. I was proud of every student, they all dove in with passion and wrestled with the story they wanted to tell until they got it right!  One thing we all agreed on at the end of the quarter: great storytelling is not easy, you have to work at it, regardless of your medium.