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“Learning STEM Through Stories”

Germs. Colds. The importance of hand washing. What better way to convey these concepts to kids than through picture books? After all, anything too small for our bare eyes seems unreal, especially to kids. Picture books that educate kids about germs, and how they can protect themselves from getting colds and other illnesses, are important. Kids rarely encounter information, though, about bacteria that benefit humans and other living beings.

The first time I heard about some unusual beneficial bacteria—such as those that make deserts more fertile—was while teaching biotech courses at a community college. I was then also bringing to life an idea from my own student days, when I relied on bacteria as a research tool in a molecular biology lab. With their interesting features, such as taking up other species’ DNA and producing foreign proteins, bacteria seemed the ideal subjects of jokes for science students and scientists. To make them cartoon-worthy, I also planned to give the aspiring bacteria much-needed words and goofy faces.

But after including a few cartoons in a short-lived biotech newsletter at the community college, I wanted to move beyond bacteria in-jokes. I couldn’t help thinking that kids, too, might love to read and learn about the diverse beneficial bacteria that do many amazing things, such as produce food, decrease pollution, and make snow.

Teaching Science with Picture Books

Teachers are nowadays finding little time to teach science in schools. Recent statistics aren’t encouraging— according to the Report of the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSME+),  only 17% of K-3 grades receive science instruction on all or most days of the school year. In self-contained classrooms (where one teacher teaches reading, mathematics, science, and social sciences to one class of students), K-3 grades spend an average of 18 minutes per day on science. In a world where STEM permeates our lives more than ever, and promises many career options, such meager student involvement in sciences is concerning.

Time constraints greatly limit teachers’ approaches to science instruction. Engaging hands-on activities, such as experiments, require considerable time to prepare and perform. Yet even finding the time for hands-on activities may be insufficient for comprehensive science instruction. Some science topics are difficult, if not impossible, to teach through classroom experiments or demonstrations—including ecology—the study of plants and animals (and other organisms) in natural environments. Most beneficial bacteria are also unsuitable for hands-on study. Though some classrooms may have the resources to grow common (and harmless) microbes on a Petri dish, many beneficial bacteria require special growth conditions that scientist have yet to discover.

Despite the obstacles, some teachers are delivering complex science topics to kids. By introducing science-themed picture books to classrooms, and developing activities around picture book readings, teachers are simultaneously satisfying science and reading requirements for their K-3 grade students. Unsurprisingly, many of these picture books are nonfiction.

Yet fiction picture books with scientific themes are also finding their way into classrooms. Students have different learning styles and interests, and some prefer fiction. Taking this into consideration, educators Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley have identified fiction and nonfiction picture books with related themes. They’ve then designed engaging science lessons around selected fiction/nonfiction book pairs, as described in their “Perfect Pairs” books. Not only do their classroom-friendly lessons cover a wide range of scientific topics—they appeal to many students, as well.

Hybrid Picture Books: STEM Fiction

The line between fiction and nonfiction isn’t always solid, at least in children’s books. When nonfiction seeps into science-themed fiction books, such books may be described as “hybrids.”

In some hybrid books, anthropomorphized characters “explain themselves” through scientific facts. In “I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are,” by Bridget Heos and Jennifer Plecas, the main character is a charismatic and undervalued fly. Page after page, the fly glorifies members of its species to a classroom of kids—who were preparing to study the more beautiful butterflies instead. Readers learn intriguing (and gross) facts about flies from the funny fly character, as it brushes the “lazy” butterflies aside.

Other hybrid books introduce scientific concepts through captivating stories, with few, if any, scientific facts quoted in the story itself. In “Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist,” by Mike Allegra and Elizabeth Zechel, the scientific method—a basic and rather dry concept—is explained through the creative problem-solving efforts of mouse Scampers. After a strange owl suddenly appears and deters Scampers and her fellow mice from feasting in their favorite garden, Scampers determines to find the (scientific) truth about the unwelcome, and possibly dangerous, newcomer.

While the value of using nonfiction picture books in science instruction is hardly questionable, scrutiny surrounds science-themed fiction and hybrid picture books. Can students truly learn from such books? How will they figure what’s fiction, and what’s not? And finally, how to label emerging science-themed hybrid books, which combine fiction with nonfiction? Categorizing these books and ensuring they’re easily found on library shelves is a challenge for librarians, too.

These questions were pondered last year in a lively Twitter discussion, when educator and writer Melissa Stewart suggested a name for science-themed hybrid literature: STEM fiction. As a trained scientist, I’ve also asked similar questions while writing my book, “Esie Explores Beneficial Bacteria.”  Yet teachers who include fiction or hybrid books in science lessons believe in the benefits of this literature, providing that students also read nonfiction books, and participate in classroom discussions to distinguish fact from fiction. How can authors of STEM fiction books facilitate learning in classrooms, as they strive to create stories that both entertain and educate?

Emphasizing the Facts in STEM Fiction

The title of my STEM fiction picture book, Esie Explores Beneficial Bacteria, is clear about the book’s topic—beneficial bacteria—which exist all around us, and enable life on our planet. The story and illustrations, though, are fiction—exploress Esie is a bacterium. After suffering insults from frightened humans, she embarks on a journey to learn more about herself. Along the way, Esie meets chatty bacteria who help answer her key question—Is she a beneficial bacterium, or a dangerous germ?

To create an engaging story, I’ve taken major liberties in depicting beneficial bacteria. The anthropomorphized bacterial characters are exaggerated in size and life span. Yet there are some truths in my interpretation of bacteria. Bacteria do “talk” with each other, but use chemicals instead of words. Bacteria do “see” their surroundings, but rely on senses other than eyes.

STEM fiction authors, such as Heos and Allegra, often complement their stories with scientific facts and activities in the back matter of their books. Some authors also include facts on other book pages, though keeping the facts separate from the story, as in “A Germ’s Journey,” by Thom Rooke, MD, and Tony Trimmer. To distinguish fact from fiction, and provide educational value—without diminishing enjoyment of the story—I, too, have included several features in Esie Explores Beneficial Bacteria:

  1. Front matter. Before immersing themselves in the story, readers can learn what’s fact, and what’s fiction. Addressed here are the most exaggerated elements of the story—bacterial communication, senses, size, and lifespan. Reading this section, though, is not required for comprehension of the story.
  2. Back matter. In addition to a glossary of scientific terms and an activity page, my back matter contains a “Cast of Characters,” which relates fictional characters to real-life bacterial species.
  3. One scientific fact per footer. The bottom portion of almost every page features a scientific fact, contained within a distinct purple band. Though each fact relates to bacterial characters shown on the same page, reading of facts is optional.
  4. Moderate use of scientific terminology in the story. To avoid overwhelming kids with too many new words, I’ve balanced the use of some “big” words, such as “beneficial,” with omission of other scientific terms. For example, I opted for “dangerous” instead of “pathogenic,” when referring to bacteria that cause disease.
  5. Clarification of scientific terminology in the story. Though defined in the glossary, some scientific terms are also explained in the story to avoid interruptions in reading.
  6. Limits on anthropomorphization. Bacterial characters sport no clothes nor any other human artifacts. On the book cover, main character Esie uses a water droplet for magnification, instead of a miniature magnifying glass.
  7. Simple artistic representation of the environment. Bacterial characters were deliberately over-sized with respect to their environment. This helps kids identify objects that bacteria encounter in nature, such as leaves, petals, and sand—as opposed to an unrecognizable microscopic view. Yet in an effort to limit size discrepancies, I kept the scenes simple—they contain few objects, and hardly any signs of human life.

By no means should STEM fiction books compete with nonfiction books in K-3 education. Like people, different books play different roles. With thoughtful design, though, STEM fiction books can do much more than merely entertain—they can draw in young readers to explore unfamiliar worlds, and serve as a valuable introduction to various scientific concepts and topics.

About the Book: Esie leaves her twin Es behind to explore a world teeming with beneficial bacteria. Could she be one of them? Or is Esie just a nasty germ, as some people say? On her rugged journey through air, water, and a cow’s guts, Esie meets new friends who help her find the answers she seeks.

“Kids that love science-themed books filled with fascinating facts will surely get a kick out of this one.” -The Children’s Book Review

About the Author: S. Kitanovic, PhD, became fascinated by microbes as a biology student, and later explored how bacteria “sniff out” their food in a lab at the University of Utah. She enjoys merging science, drawing, and storytelling in picture books to bring the fun of science to young audiences.

What do you think? Do you use or plan to use STEM fiction books to teach science?

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