New LSC course examines the role of narrative in science communication

The use of narrative in science has become a particularly active area of research in recent years. Narrative can be a powerful tool for any form of communication and science is no exception.  But it is not as easy as it may seem.  When using storytelling in science, there are many questions to address. What does research tell us about what is effective when using narrative in science? What should the plot line be? What platform is best? What is the length and format? These are just a few of the questions communicators must address when composing a narrative about science.

This semester, LSC debuted a new course focusing on this emerging area in science communication – LSC 430: Communicating Science with Narrative. The course, taught by Professor Shiela Reaves, explores how storytelling can be used to communicate complex scientific topics to non-expert audiences. Students examine the impact of metaphor in science writing, the scientific paradigm shifts surrounding narrative theory, and how news-editorial thinking can be used in the sciences.

“Although storytelling is ancient to the human species, it is relatively new in the life sciences, and many scientists are not aware of the persuasive impact of non-fiction storytelling found in the news media. By understanding the power of storytelling to change minds, our students can stand out in the field,” notes Reaves.

Iowa State Associate Professor Michael Dahlstrom visited LSC 430: Communicating Science with Narrative.

Recently, the class hosted the leading scholar in communicating science through narrative, Iowa State Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication Michael Dahlstrom. Dahlstrom, an alumnus of LSC’s joint Ph.D. program, has published extensively on the persuasive and ethical implications of using narrative in science. (See his recent publication in PNAS)

According to Dahlstrom, stories are the default mode of human thought making it easier for them to keep our attention and interest. Furthermore, because narratives fit into our natural thought processes, narrative stories can be processed easier and recalled faster than other forms of communication, making them particularly persuasive.

It should be noted that using narrative in science communication is not without its ethical considerations. Narrative can be particularly effective at overcoming potentially resistant audiences, however, persuasion should not be propaganda.

For these reasons and more, narrative is a particularly interesting area of research and study. In LSC 430, students review current research on the use of narrative in various science disciplines, including health communication and science policy. After studying current research on narrative and the key historical and theoretical frameworks, students apply their knowledge by integrating storytelling into their writing.

“This class is teaching me to look beyond just the facts. It’s teaching me how to take those facts and weave them into a narrative that will make complex science more interesting to lay audiences. It is reminding me that just because I’m a science writer, I don’t have to leave my creativity behind,” said LSC junior Josie Russo.

LSC chair Dominique Brossard concurs, “It is very exciting for LSC to add this innovative course to our curriculum. Students are mastering various concepts to improve their writing and are being exposed to cutting-edge research investigating the impact narrative can have on different aspects of science communication. We hope to offer the class again in the near future.”