General, User Stories | July 27, 2016

Plug Your Disengaged STEM Students back in with Digital Storytelling

While for many students, STEM Lab or going to the Maker Studio at their school might be their favorite part of the day, we’ve all encountered the student who has totally disengaged from science or math in school. For some, it might be Math Anxiety, for others they may feel anxious about being an underrepresented population within STEM fields, and in some cases they may just not have encountered the magic of Science and Engineering yet. We’re going to take a look at how you can use Digital Storytelling to pull those students back into the core of your STEM classroom and help them to fully engage with the content.

What is Digital Storytelling?

Digital Storytelling is the act of building a narrative through a digital medium (or media). Digital Stories are short, created using computerized tools (video editing software, website building tools, computer programming, animation software, etc.) and frequently even combine these tools tools to create a multimedia mashup of genres and styles. You can find out more about Digital Storytelling here.

Bring Narrative into the STEM Process

The point of STEM (and the Maker Movement) is to bring any and all of the tools at your disposal together to solve a problem. The point of digital storytelling is parallel to this: to bring any and all of the tools at your disposal together to tell a story. By bringing storytelling and STEM together, you focus not just on the outcomes, but on the entire process. This can be beneficial for encouraging a Growth Mindset in your learners and for reducing the pressure that some students may feel to always produce the “right” answer.

The Hero’s Journey is a iconic narrative theme developed by Joseph Campbell. It is a structure that can be found in literature, cinema, TV, and many other forms of storytelling (this site will give you a more thorough explanation). The acts of creating, or making, or engineering most of the key components of the Hero’s Journey narrative:
  • The Hero: Your student!
  • The Call to Action: What was the problem they wanted to solve? How did they encounter this problem?
  • The Threshold: The moment they went from identifying the problem to trying to solve it.
  • The Mentor: You! The teacher.
  • Challenges (and Failures): All of the iterations of their experiment or attempts to create a solution.
  • Transformation (and Reward): What they learned, created, developed or made.
Once your students assume the role of the Hero in their own STEM adventure, they cease becoming static vessels of knowledge, and become active participants with huge potential for growth.

Let Your Students Tell Their Stories Their Way

One of the greatest advantages of using digital storytelling in the classroom is that it is a medium that is accessible to all types of learners. It does not require that you communicate most effectively in writing, or visually, or that you be a confident public speaker. The only requirement is that you tell your story as best you can. Some students may choose to speak directly to use the camera, or incorporate in-class video content into their stories, while others may incorporate photos and music for more abstract elements of their narrative.

Swivl Cloud’s Slides feature allows students to upload a primary video for their digital story (be it a video of them narrating, an in-class video of their science experiment, or an animation they created in Scratch), and then add other kinds of media to it. Students can upload a variety of supporting content: a photo from class, a PDF image from a textbook, or even another video. Then, they can sync this media to particular moments in the primary video, tying everything to the overall message they want to convey.

Motivate Today’s Students to Inspire Tomorrow’s

I’ll kick off this last point with an anecdote from my time working as a Technology Specialist at a school here in California. It was early-afternoon and the campus was quiet as I walked to deliver a new toner cartridge to the main office. A second grader who I knew by face and not by name passed me and we said “Hi”. After we had passed, she turned around and started “ummm Miss Emily, you work in the computer lab, right?” “Yeah, I do,” I responded. “And… you work with computers?” I smiled. “Yeah, I work with computers every day. That’s what I do.” She looked off to the side, furrowed her brow, then looked up at me and smiled. With that, she spun around and skipped back to class.

I think about that conversation often, and sometimes wish we had talked longer. It seemed there was another question, one she didn’t ask, on her mind. Can women work in tech? I could tell she had heard the contrary from someone. Maybe a little brother, or a classmate, had told her that women aren’t good with computers. Maybe she had heard from a teacher that we don’t have enough women in tech. I could tell from her smile that she was now armed with evidence that women in tech do exist, and tech is for us.

There is a wealth of studies and thought leadership that has given us insight into the huge impact that role models can have on underrepresented groups in STEM fields (in particular for women, for some examples see here, here and here). One of the most salient results, however, is that the role models who have the biggest impacts on students, are the most accessible to them, and the ones whose achievements feel the most attainable. Given that, who could be better role models for your students than… your students?

Pair up older grades with younger ones for collaborative STEM activities. Play students’ digital stories as an introduction to each younger students’ partner/mentor. Share their achievements and their challenges, and yes, even their failures as examples of what it looks like to thoughtfully engage in STEM. Now you’re empowering your older students to apply what they’ve learned to help the younger ones, and your younger students now have a very real role model in their lives.

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