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BSIE 2010: Session 23

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education
K-12 Summer Institute 2010



  Session 23

Case Study: Stories of Electron Shielding

Paul Burgmayer

Paul Burgmayer teaches at Great Valley High School, and has been a contributor to several prior summer institutes.  Paul has a doctorate in chemistry and, earlier in his life, did research in industrial chemistry. 

Picking up  from Monday

I really enjoyed Greg's presentation, particularly the way he started it off by saying he wanted our help in making his lecture  more interactive.  The fact that he immediately told us how important our feedback was to him transferred a lot of authority from him, the "conductor," to the rest of us and put us in the mood to learn with open minds.  ... Teal

This type of biology would take time for me to take everything in and understand ... cdivo39

My worst science subject in high school was Biology.  I could never "get" most of the content that the teacher was presenting.  I am pleased to tell you that I was able to follow your presentation ... Regina

in our case there is never too much alternative dicussion among institute participants because we are educators and we love hearing our own voices! ... Jack

I felt a sufficient amount out time was allowed for entertaining alternative explanations from the participants ... However, given a much larger class size .... Mattie

After reading some of the comments from the session, I am worried that we have a incomplete story of what Inquiry is ... Judith

Among the things that struck me, picking up on Ingrid, was the need to have a session on "inquiry skills."  There are methodological practices that have developed in science (among other places) that it would be useful to talk about more generally ... Paul




Susan Dorfman's picture

The story of four atoms

I was disappointed to have missed so much of Paul B.'s model lesson; however, from what I did experience, it was engaging. His enthusiams for the topic was infectious. Putting myself in the persona of my students, I would have enjoyed the experience. Although, the pre-survey would have caused some of my students to panic and want help with the work, "is this what you mean?" type outbursts, the survey yielded information both to the teacher and the students. The teacher could make assumptions about a starting point and the students would be ready to learn info they did not know or could not remember. Interest was established. The handouts were helpful, the progression , logical. Although I understand the risks of the free association parameters of the story line, I know that my students would have as much fun as Joyce and I did including the vocabulary and the concepts into an interesting setting that delighted us, and hopefully, our colleagues. In my teaching, I frequently stop to make analogies to help students with concepts. Although I do not anthropomorphize living and non-living matter, I do use situations in the lives of my students to create similarities between their lives and the concepts under discussion. When I ask the students to use story telling as a vehicle for understanding, they use narrative, poetry, and rap to express themselves. The exercise helps them to remember the technical vocabulary. I grade the efforts on understanding shown of the concepts and marvel at their abilty to put the processes in their own creative terms. I should mention that the free association storytelling approach is one I use with Grade 7 biology students. I would not use this same approach with my AP Biology students. The stories the seniors tell are steeped in the reality of the science. 

joycetheriot's picture

Science Literacy

Gauging Student Understanding

Paul’s workshop today was an excellent example of a dimensional lesson. He demonstrated a model using several strategies to not only engage students in the content, but also to allow the teacher to develop an understanding of students’ comprehension. Paul was able to engage us with the modeling process and then there was the opportunity to demonstrate our connections to concepts.

The rich part of this activity for me was the literacy connections. Since I teach academic chemistry, I usually have students work in groups to draw or build a physical representation of their understanding based on a cartoon storyboard or a conceptual drawing of their process, etc. The amount of words is limited and the student products don’t always match those expected for required “science literacy”.

Creating fun, imaginative stories that frame their understanding and are easily assessed using numbered bookmarks that students place defining the required concepts in their documents is a brilliant process. I will definitely incorporate this strategy in my classroom with thanks to Paul for his good work!



Ashley Dawkins's picture


Thanks Paul. I really enjyed your session.

Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Paul B's story

Stories with stories is the story of the atom.  As, I also love chemistry I also find that students know matter what age have a reluctance when you mention this word.  The story I give my students is that if you look at what you are wearing, what you are drinking or eatting, what you text and talk with and basically everything around you it has a chemical story.  Sometimes, we must allow the student to become aware that chemistry is a natural part of our life.  Terminology can come second and if we allow the students to explore, first, I think their stories about chemistry will change.  I would give inquiry stories about how paper towels or baby diapers absorb and challenge the students to design a better story on improving them.  Reading the comments from today I enjoyed Keith's story and I understand the concern in Mattie's story.  The challenge as teacher is to bridge these two stories for effective teaching for all.

Mattie Davis's picture

Can You Explain That Another Way???

All educators want our learners grasp information included in our lessons, lectures, conversations, etc..  What methods do we employ to ascertain the levels of understanding achieved by our learners?  Often we look for familiarity in  relationships; something we can relate to; something the learner already knows something about, and which may be useful in gaining a better grasp of the concept.  When one explanation is not clearly comprehended, we "explain it another way."







Paul Grobstein's picture

More on story telling and storytelling

Delighted to have Paul's involvement in our conversation.  Like a lot his efforts to enage students in a variety of different ways, to get them to think through material by trying out different ways of doing it. 

The issue of whether "story" (or "explanation" or "construction") is or is not different from "facts," "concepts," etc is a point of conflict which (like all points of conflict) can be the grist for the development of new ways of thinking about things.  For an earlier exploration of this set of issues, see Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?  "Story telling" for me is what everyone does, scientists included.  It is creating stories/explanation/constructions to make sense of observations, where it is recognized that the particular one being told is one of many that could be told and is "context dependent" ie has been chosen to be told by a particular person or group of people for reasons that have to do with more than the observations (involves the "crack").  "Storytelling" for me is the deliberate transformation of a scientific story into some other form to make it more engaging for other people.  There is lots to be said for the latter as a pedagogical device but also some problems:

  • It encourages people to make a sharp distinction between "reality" (or "science") and story/imagination that I don't think is  either accurate or desirable/useful.
  • It encourages people to see things that may be quite different from themselves as having properties like themselves ("anthropomorphizing"). 
  • It make serious trouble when one gets to studies of the brain, where it becomes clear that one cannot in fact distinguish "reality" from "construction."

How about asking people not to create "stories" that have to incorporate particular "facts" and "concepts" but instead to ask people to tell the story they have heard differently?  ie to account for the same observations in a different way?  And then to think about what difference it makes which way one tells the story?  This might provide many of the pedagogical advantages of the "storytelling" approach without some of the disadvantages?  Along these lines, I'd also be inclined not to contrast an "analytical" with a story approach.  The "analytical" is equally a story, but one that has been developed out of a preference for creating stories that can be widely shared despite personal idiosyncracies.  It is more "objective" in the sense of being motivated by "shared subjectivity."

Maybe we can all have our cake and eat it too?  Both story telling and storytelling? 

Paul Burgmayer's picture

Analytical thinking and story-telling, Tell story differently?

I appreciate Paul G.'s comments about storytelling vs. story telling. However I would argue that students do both in this exercise. As they write the storytelling stories that I read (and enjoy), they also are story telling to themselves (and maybe students around them). To me the essence of this was the conversations that pairs and trios around the room were having as they tried to incorporate concepts into their stories. The conversations I heard were ones where as Paul puts it "people were telling the story that they have heard differently." So both story telling and storytelling are occurring.

I don't have the same problem as Paul with anthropomorphizing. One of the central ideas I impress on students is that chemists always view the everyday world from a molecular perspective. Anything I can do to help students "see" that molecular world as a reality is good. For 10th graders, anthropomorphizing is a particularly effective way to engage their imaginations in this molecular world. It works for this age group. Perhaps there is a problem with studies of the brains but my students are very far from that class.

I also don't think that this exercise causes students to make a sharp distinction between science and imagination. One of the huge problems in high school is the silos that students (and teachers) construct between subject areas. Students "know" they use their artistic and creative talents in creative writing, art, and music and that those parts of the brain are turned off when they enter the science or math classrooms where they use the analytic parts of their brains. For most of the year, that is true in my class. This is one of the few times when I say "let loosen up a little bit, use that part of the brain that you don't normally use here and let's see what happens." This exercise is one that tries to blur the distinction, not sharpen it.

My distinction between analytic and stories during our session arises out of my own experience of learning. For whatever reason, I cannot grasp a concept from numbers and equations. I need to construct a metaphor of some sort (like the campfire story) I know there are people (including some students I teach) who can. They have an ability that I lack. So I am sensitive to those students who are like me. They often feel lost in the sciences (especially physics) where numbers and equations dominate the conversation. Later after I "get" concepts I can effectively enter into a numbers conversation. But is not a mode of learning that works for me.

Thanks for a great conversation today. I learned a lot.


cdivo39's picture


Paul B was a very engaging instructor.  I would enjoy him in a classroom instructing me on a subject that I either loved or was knowledgeable about.  Unfortunatley, I never had chemistry and I've always been lousy at math so I couldn't become as engaged as I would have liked too. 

GShoshana's picture

My Story

I am a Hebrew Teacher. The lesson was hard for me to understand . However, I enjoyed watching the teacher using all kind of techniques in order for us to understand the lesson.  He used videos, stories, discussions, dialog, and the survey...all to keep us on track.

Keith Sgrillo's picture

The Undeniable Chemistry of Love





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Once upon a time, on the planet Atomania, there was a kingdom called Bohrmodell.  In this kingdom there was a prince, whose name was Prince Nathan.  Prince Nathan had a particular problem.  He just could not tell where he fit in.  He constantly complained that there was a small part of him that just didn’t feel like it was a part of the larger community.  He felt as though there was a part of him always on the outside looking in.  Whether it was the King’s ball, or the decisions being made on how to run the kingdom, or what to do about the terrible dragon Hydro who was constantly blowing things up in the kingdom.  He just felt that he did not fit in this period at all and that there may be other forces pulling him into some other orbit of existence.  He felt as though he was stuck in his own, unstable little shell. 
Farther away, in the emerald green kingdom of Gastonia, lived a princess named Clarabelle.  Clarabelle always found herself attracting other suitors.  But none of these suitors ever had the electro attraction that she felt or the valence to gain her full attention.  She wondered if there would ever be a prince that could make her feel like she was complete, though confident on the inside, she always felt she was missing something on the outside.  She came from a wonderful family who always stuck together as a strong nucleus.  Though their kingdom was lush with green, there was no envy among its inhabitance and everyone’s ideas were valued.  Everyone felt that they were a part of the group.
One day, news came to the kingdom of Bohrmodell that the King of Gastonia was worried his daughter would never find a prince and he would thus never have an heir to his throne.  He recognized that each potential suitor just did not have the attraction needed for his daughter.  They were just too much like her and he knew that only opposites would attract.  So he began his search and sent a message to Bohrmodell.  The message read:
“Must have an inner ability to be positive about life, but also be able to view things on the outside from a neutral perspective.  Must be outgoing and able to view things that are opposite as an attractive quality.  You must not be introverted and remain in your shell.”
Prince Nathan quickly realized that he did fit these qualities.  He thought, “I love to have the company of those that are different than me.  I feel a connection and attraction to those things.  I am constantly looking for ways to make things better and feel a positive energy in our kingdom.  But, I am always able to see both sides of an issue from a neutral perspective.  I always found myself attracted to other kingdoms and felt a small part of me feeling a pull to go there.  Especially when the dragon Hydro is around blowing things up.”  So his mind was made up. He would seek a chance to go meet the princess Clarabelle. 
When the two finally met, they realized they were lucky to be living in the same period, otherwise they would not have met.  They found that they were similar in some ways but very different in others, as was the case for their kingdoms.  One thing that put Nathan at ease was the fact that the dragon Hydro usually fell asleep when he tried to attach the kingdom of Gastonia and didn’t blow things up.  They also found that they had an atomic connection, they both shared an inner balance.  Prince Nathan could not resist the pull of the beautiful Clarabelle, they soon wed and lived happily ever after. 

Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

Off the's my story...

Teacher Nucleus, teaches students named Group (^).  Teacher Nucleus' objective is to get Group out of their Shell which is limited knowledge, lacking desire, and lack luster learning.  Each Period (>), Group will explore at least the Orbital experience of each subject.

Wil Franklin's picture


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