Storytelling with a side order of science: STEAM in adult education
By Jacqueline Saville, Writer
What links an African folktale about the origins of the tortoise and Einstein's theory of relativity? That's what Dr. Alice Courvoisier and I attempted to show in an hour and a half session at the York Festival of Ideas 2016, when we set out to subtly instill some hard science into an adult audience by way of storytelling.
Alice teaches in the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of York and has taught in the university's Centre for Lifelong Learning as well as at other further and higher education institutions. In her spare time she likes to re-tell myths and folktales to an adult audience. I write short stories, and we both have backgrounds in physics and applied math. This was an experiment waiting to happen.
We've done other live collaborations of fact and fiction using history, for instance, but this was the first time we tried to bridge the two cultures. It's nearly 60 years since C.P. Snow's famous lecture (“The Two Cultures,” 1959) but while there may be recent progress in schools or in interdisciplinary work at universities, for those who left formal education 20, 30, 40 years ago the arts and the sciences are still different spheres in the U.K. Furthermore, if a scientist fails to recognize a quote from Hamlet there will be raised eyebrows but anyone with an arts background can remain in ignorance of algebra without anyone thinking less of them, so a straightforward popular science lecture might have given us a narrow appeal. Obviously, Alice and I find science fascinating, but could we put together an evening on the theme of time that a general audience of non-scientists would enjoy? Crucially, could we send them home knowing more than they did when they arrived?
History is often the one connection between the arts and STEM, the more "human" side that puts the parts that are too often seen as nerdy, mathematical, or difficult to follow in some kind of context. Thus we broke our audience in gently after the first folktale with a potted history of measuring time: clocks, calendars, standardization, and the imposition of international time zones. Backed up with a story I'd written about a devious merchant trying to trick his creditors using the calendar change of 1752, we hoped to get the audience in a frame of mind where absolute time didn't seem so obvious, and they were ready to accept that there are different ways to label the same thing.
Then Alice hit them with the science. Newton's model followed by Einstein's, the idea of a speed limit on information, worldlines, and light cones. Armed with a whiteboard, two pens, and one not-so-glamorous assistant, she brought the audience gently through the concepts behind some advanced physics that many would have shied away from in another context. As we were planning the evening's package of stories and factual material we tested it out on a friend with storytelling experience but no physics knowledge, using her questions and confusion to refine the presentation. In essence the science was just another story - a thought experiment is not so different from a myth after all, and in this way with a few sketched diagrams we arrived at the “Twins Paradox.”
One twin stays on earth, the other goes on an interstellar trip, and because of time dilation they're not the same age when they meet again. Remind you of anything? What about those tales where someone steps inside the fairy ring, stays for a night, and steps out again after a hundred years have passed in the village? So we told a couple of folktales, one from France, one from Japan, in which just that kind of thing happens. Key fact: everything depends on the frame of reference.
With the aid of some classic science fiction stories we finished up with time travel and its pitfalls. Paradoxes, potentially allowable mechanisms (back to the differences between Newton and Einstein again), philosophy, and free will. Yes, some of it might have been familiar from “Doctor Who” related discussions at home, but we also introduced recent work from French physicists, hopefully planting the idea that real scientists really think about these kind of things.
A couple of final-year undergraduates were in the audience, attracted by the crossover with a philosophy of science module, and declared it the “most easy” to understand lecture in their whole three years at the university. Wild exaggeration, obviously, but it was gratifying to hear that they'd learned something and what's more that they had seen the evening as an educational experience not just an amusing night out. We had other positive feedback and on its own terms our experiment with storytelling and science worked. Great, we all enjoyed ourselves, but can we apply the approach elsewhere?
In this instance Alice and I were delivering an event that was primarily designed as entertainment. As part of a Festival of Ideas there was scope for making the audience think, without them resenting us, so without much alteration this package and others like it could be adapted for a learning for pleasure context. I'm thinking here of university lifelong learning courses, or taster sessions at a science festival. Similarly, a university open day could make use of the format as an eye-catching offer to visitors. None of these are examinable, even the lifelong learning course doesn't necessarily require an assessment at the end of it, so from that point of view there is no time constraint and the topic can be as focused as you like.
With secondary school or undergraduate students, however, there is a syllabus to cover and exams to prepare for. A presentation like ours is time-consuming to put together, particularly if you favor memorization of stories to allow maximum pacing and gesturing. It's also full of non-examinable material (all the myths, folktales and fiction) and it has to be said that it works better for concepts and overview than it would for the nitty-gritty of equations. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its place, however, to introduce a special topic or, if you think there's time and appetite, to explore an aside.
Although Alice has yet to persuade her department of its merits, we did start exploring the idea of a workshop for engineering undergraduates that would act as a wake-up call and hopefully empower them to be active rather than passive in their development of technology. Technology has consequences, from catch-up TV making those morning-after conversations a thing of the past, to the rise of coffee pods causing unforeseen environmental problems. There is often a feeling of inevitability about the progress of technology (or science) which is an artifact of the way we look at it. In the same way that history is written by the victors, we write the history of technology from the standpoint of a future in which a particular version won out, petrol-driven rather than electric cars for instance, or electric not gas fridges. From that standpoint it seems obvious that one idea progressed to the next and we ended up with the equipment and surroundings we've got.
Alice's friend Carolyn Dougherty, an engineer pursuing a PhD in history, wrote an article called “On Progress, On Airships” in Steampunk Magazine. In it she looked at the also-rans, the technology we didn't hang onto as a society, and made the point that the dominant technology is not always the best or the safest. Given this, we looked at the possibility of using the popular genre of alternative history to highlight the role of choice in the development of technology, and do away with the idea of it relying on some form of natural selection which the individual engineer has no part in.
Where now for storytelling and STEM? Alice and I would still like to do the engineering workshop someday, if we find the time and occasion. While there is that hangover of the two cultures in society it's hard to fit a blended approach into existing platforms. Too much science for an arts festival, too many stories for a science festival. However, if you can find the time and space to do this it's intriguing, it's unusual, and that's definitely part of its appeal. I personally think STEAM education is long overdue and the separation between arts and STEM is largely artificial, but in terms of attracting interest it may be worth capitalizing on the novelty value of the mixture for a while yet.
Jacqueline Saville is a writer from northern England with degrees in physics and maths and an interest in education. She tweets @JYSaville and shares her work at readings and storytelling events across Yorkshire. There are links to most of her fiction, non-fiction, radio appearances, and even recordings of her reading some of the material from the Festival of Ideas event, at her blog https://thousandmonkeys.wordpress.com/.