The Importance of Story in STEM Education

Content and Context

The curriculum maps, standards, and always beloved standardized tests provide a roadmap to guide educators toward which content to share with students over a given school year. What the teacher is left with is to provide context and relevance to that content. That’s where story’s power becomes evident. According to Harrison Monarth in The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool, “A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.” Important in business, obviously. How much more important in a classroom in which you are trying to impart information to last a lifetime?

Further, the story you use must make sense to your audience. It must be relevant to them where they are at the moment. Let me give you an example:

Over the course of this school year, we have the rare happenstance of having one astronaut with a background as a classroom teacher, Joe Acaba, immediately replaced on station with another former classroom teacher, Ricky Arnold. That gives us a year with an educator on the ISS. NASA STEM Engagement and the STEM on Station team came up with the “Year of Education on Station” or YES. Over the course of their respective missions on the ISS Acaba and Arnold will be performing lessons, activities, and demonstrations (or as we’re calling them STEMonstrations) to be used in classrooms for years to come. They are also downlinking with schools and educational institutions while they are on station. That sounds pretty amazing, yes?

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger took off from Kennedy on a chilly morning. As did many of you, I watched from my desk in school as, 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle broke apart and we lost all seven astronauts. The reason we were so transfixed and watching during school was the inclusion of our first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe. During their activities, Joe and Ricky will be performing the 8 lessons originally slated for Christa…did you feel that? Did you feel the difference between “they’ll be doing lessons” and “they’ll be doing Christa’s lessons”? That is the power of story. That is relevance.

The Space Shuttle Challenger


Coming up, hopefully, at the end of 2019 we will be flying Exploration Mission-1, EM-1. The first step to the next step in space exploration. This will be the first flight of NASA’s new Space Launch System, SLS. The SLS will launch the Orion Capsule to the Moon and beyond. This is our springboard to manned Mars missions and other deep space targets. The men and women that will be the first to step foot on these other celestial bodies are sitting in middle and high school classrooms right now. Our job to find them, inspire them, create the next great things. Don’t just list facts, tell the story.

Space Launch System

Steven Smith
Educator Professional Development Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Johnson Space Center