I sat in a corner of the frog exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center with a typewriter on my lap. There’s usually a line before me, but at that moment there wasn’t, and my sign was clearly visible to the father and the son who were hurrying to see as much of the museum as they could before it closed. “Stories Typewritten while you wait,” the sign said, with dinosaurs and ladybugs painted around the words for emphasis.
I type stories for strangers. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve written ghost stories up at the Ontario Beach Pier, written about blueberry fairies for tourists in New York City’s High Line Park, and written about sympathetic artificial intelligence for RIT students at the Rochester Farmer’s Market. People come up to me and give me a first line or an idea of some kind, and I run with it and in seven minutes or so hand them a half-sheet of cream-colored paper filled with the small purple type of my 1926 Underwood Portable Typewriter. I use a typewriter because it’s impossible to ignore—the mechanical tapping and ring of the bell is as much a draw as the beautiful machine itself—and also because when I’ve finished, the story is a physical object that I can give to the person who waited so patiently. I’ve written well over 800 stories, and charge ten cents for each one.
Last fall, just as the pier was getting too windy and the farmer’s market getting too cold, I happened to meet Dan Menelly, the Chief Science Officer at the Rochester Museum and Science Center at an event at the University of Rochester. I’m a Ph. D. candidate in Biophysics at the University—I study glass filters 10,000 times thinner than a human hair as a part of the Nanomembranes Research Group—and I’d conceived of the 10 cent story project as a way for me to let off some of the intense pressure of my research.
But when Menelly and I met and talked, he wondered if I couldn’t merge these two things—storytelling and science—together. Menelly is an educator and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) advocate, and he saw in my project a chance to use narrative to teach science concepts. Menelly invited me to type stories at his museum on the weekends, and I leapt at the chance.
That’s why I was sitting in the frog exhibit with my sign and my typewriter when the father and son approached me. They didn’t know it, but that would my sixty-eighth story in seventeenth hours of typing over two days, and I knew it would be the last story I typed before I went home. I was tired and hungry and my fingers were cramped. But I was happy. I love storytelling.
I asked the boy what kind of story he’d like. He was shy, so he whispered to his dad that he wanted a story about the three little pigs. I asked the boy if I could change the fairy tale he knew a little bit, to make it his story and give it a little science. He looked at me, thought about it, and then nodded yes. I fed the paper into the machine and began.
The big bad wolf had been chasing the three little pigs for a long time. The pigs would build a home, and the wolf would come and with a huff and a puff he would knock the house over. The pigs had built homes out of sticks, and out of straw, and out of bricks and glass and steel and aluminum, but the big bad wolf was always able to blow their house down. The three little pigs had been running for a long time, and they were tired of running and always building new homes. So they called up their friends at NASA and got them to fly the three little pigs into space. And the three little pigs lived in the International Space Station.
The big bad wolf hired a Russian rocket to take him to space, and over the radio he told the pigs, “little pigs little pigs, open your airlock and let me in!”
But the piggies got on the radio and radioed back, “not by the hair on our chinny chin chin.”
“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in,” the wolf said, and he exited the rocket, and floated to the ISS, and blew as hard as he could.
But in the vacuum and microgravity of space, when the wolf blew, his air moving forward pushed him backwards, and the wolf blew so hard that he launched himself to Mars.
Using narrative to teach STEM concepts isn’t new. In fact, there’s even a new acronym being bandied about—STEAM, with the extra “A” standing for Art. It’s part of a trend to make science more palatable to young children, particularly girls, in the hopes of bringing larger and more diverse cohorts to the field. But it’s not an easy task to balance the needs of narrative and the needs of teaching. Too much story, and the science can get lost. Too much science, and the story might fail to engage the kids. When I first started typing at the museum, I found myself sticking a little too closely to the science I knew from my PhD studies. Take this story, which I wrote for a boy named Jack who had come to the museum with his grandmother:
Jack the scientist had a hypothesis. He thought that frogs would be able to jump farther if they had stretched their legs first. He thought that if they were limber and warmed up, that just like a human athlete they would be better able to perform.
So Jack got two groups of frogs, his experimental group and his control group. There were five frogs in each group. He put the experimental group in a frog playground, and let them jump around for two minutes—long enough to get warmed up, but not long enough for them to get tired. He kept the control frogs in their boring cages, and they didn’t jump around at all. Then, he took the frogs one by one and put them on a floor he’d marked out with a meter stick, and poked each one gently to make them jump. He wrote how far each had jumped in his notebook.
Jack found that the frogs that had been warmed up in the playground jumped on average 50 centimeters, with a standard deviation of 5 cm, while the control frogs jumped an average of 30 centimeters, with a standard deviation of 2 cm. Jack wrote up his experiment and submitted it to The Journal of Frog Biomechanics, and after being reviewed by a bunch of other Frog scientists, it was published.
There’s a lot of good science in that story—statistical significance, peer review, careful construction of an experiment to test a clearly stated hypothesis – but Jack was around six years old. The story has too many numbers for it to work. Also, it’s boring. With the help of his grandmother he might learn something, but the story would never do anything on its own.
Since then I’ve learned to take a broader view of my objectives at the museum. I still write stories about frogs that jump all the way to the moon and lost dogs and really really cool treehouses. But I put scientific concepts in wherever they fit, whether that’s talking about gravity wave detectors in a story about astronauts, or emphasizing good engineering practices in a story about the eternal battle between frogs and snakes, or just trying to make sure that conservation of mass is followed during the madcap transformations that result when a zombie dragon and a vampire dragon bite each other at exactly the same time. One weekend, a young woman named Gabby told me she wanted to be a biologist, and she wanted a story about science and giant frogs.
“Can you write a story about that?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
Gabby the frog scientist had been called down to the Amazon rain forest to investigate the unexpected discovery of dozens of new species of frogs. She flew down from Rochester to Rio de Janeiro in a big plane, then to the outskirts of the jungle in a little plane, then to a research station in the smallest plane she’d ever seen, then car, motorcycle, and finally a twelve mile hike out to the campsite where the naturalist had been telling them about the new species on his satellite phone.
As she traveled, a story began to emerge. Climate change had caused a stable vortex of greenhouse gasses and ozone depleting chemicals to form just over this one spot in the jungle, and as a result there was a huge hole in the ozone overhead. The hole in the ozone caused the frog’s DNA to change, and the strangest mutations were resulting. The naturalist had discovered a frog covered in frog eyes, and one that had both hind legs tied in a knot, and another that spat out whole flies instead of eating them. This campsite was going to be ground zero for some of the most exciting frog research ever done.
But when they at last walked into the campsite, it was in ruins. The tent was torn and supplies were everywhere and being chewed on by little purple toads. They called out loudly for the naturalist, but there was no answer.
Gabby dug through the debris, and unearthed a notebook. “Expected Genetic Drift” it was titled. In it features were listed, like “long legs” and “sees x-rays” and “invisible,” with a checkmark and a date beside each one. There was a shaky mark beside one feature. “Extreme giantism and hunger for human flesh,” it read. The date was yesterday, and there was a frowny face next to the entry.
Just then, there was a thud, as if there was an enormous footstep headed their way…
When I finish typing, I read the story back to her, and we decided on the title—“Expected Genetic Drift”—together. She thanked me and took her story. By then there were more people in line, and I turn to the next kid and asked her, “What kind of story would you like?”