Storytelling is central to the human experience – helping us make sense of the world and our own lives. Stories can be found across curricular areas – including in the science classroom. Perhaps you have listened to a riveting re-telling of Archimedes’ bathtub eureka moment, heard the story of Galileo dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or are familiar with the electrifying controversy between Galvani and Volta. But whose stories are shared and celebrated while others remain invisible?

When we understand science as a sociocultural activity, we can notice the ways science classrooms reinforce the worldviews and contributions of the dominant culture. When our science curriculum neglects to significantly honour Indigenous ways of knowing science, Euro-Western ways of thinking and being are privileged. When only the stories of white, male scientists are highlighted in resources, it sends the message to learners that science is not for those who identify otherwise.

This cultural dissonance that can occur has been documented in numerous science education research studies. All students deserve to see themselves reflected in their science learning, and science education has an important role in advocating for a more socially just and equitable world.

Counter storytelling is one way we can (re)center the voices that have long been relegated to the margins in mainstream science classrooms.

What Are Counter Stories?

Counter stories are stories that challenge the dominant cultural narrative. They are stories that confront power and privilege. They are the stories of marginalized individuals and communities. A key concept of critical race theory (which, in simplest terms could be understood as a lens for making sense of how racism operates in society), counter stories can help paint a more complete picture of race and power relations within our institutions.

Mobilizing Counter Stories In Science Classrooms

As science educators, we can leverage our privilege to center IBPOC (Indigenous, Black, People of Colour) voices. One way of doing this is by inviting racially diverse scientists to share their science stories. Through various collaborations, my students and I have been able to learn about the joys and challenges encountered along different science journeys. Together, we have been able to grow our understanding of how science is embedded within Indigenous storytelling and better understand how women of colour are leaders in various science industries.

In my classroom, we also access counter stories through diverse text and media resources. I love sharing Robin Wall Kimmerer’s botany journey by reading from Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults. Her plant knowledge and ability to weave Indigenous and western sciences together, truly, are gifts.

We have also learned about the night sky and structures from local star lore expert, Wilfred Buck, whose videos are very accessible online. Additionally, students are invited to discuss and think critically about the story of Henrietta Lack’s HeLa cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), as well as the systemic barriers encountered by Patricia Bath on her journey to improve eye care (The Girl with an Eye for Eyes).

We can also provide opportunities for learners to value storytelling both as a method of science inquiry and way of demonstrating their science learning. For a science project, a group of my students were inspired to collect and analyze counter stories from their community to make sense of health-related inequities. Students have also created their own science stories in the form of comics or short stories to communicate their personal and cultural understandings of science.

Sharing Our Collective Counter Stories

As a racialized teacher, I also make efforts to embed my own counter stories into my teaching practice. By sharing my experiences growing up as a second-generation Chinese Canadian from a family of war refugees, I invite my students to share their own cultural stories and histories.

With vulnerability, I also share with my classes the moments of racial discrimination I have experienced both as a young person and now educator living and working in predominantly white communities. Together, we connect and interrogate the intersectional oppressions that continue to persist within our schools.

It is important for our students to know that their teachers are also learners trying to grapple with the complex, nuanced, and messy work of understanding diverse worldviews and ways of knowing science. There is so much that I have yet to understand! There is excitement and curiosity, but also days of frustration and tears.

Learning takes patience and time, and I, too, am working to decolonize my western science lens by unpacking my own positionality and biases, connecting with diverse community members, learning through reading and scholarly work, trying new pedagogies, and learning from my (many) mistakes.

What Story Will We Tell Together?

I hope that we can all come to value more diverse ways of knowing science by interrogating our own teaching practices. Can we more intentionally celebrate and reflect on the stories of IBPOC scientists? Can we create courageous spaces to dialogue with our racially marginalized students and colleagues about their conceptualizations of science and scientists? Can we make visible the ways in which whiteness permeates science education?

Although the challenges in education are real ranging from time and access to resources to resistance from others to unfamiliar ideas, socially just science pedagogies must be prioritized. For those already engaged in this important work, I hope you can find solidarity and encouragement in knowing that you are not alone. To colleagues who have yet to embark on your own journeys, I urge you to (re)consider the story you will tell one day. Maybe it will be a story of how you looked away and reinforced the status quo… but maybe, instead, it can be the story of how you overcame your own fears, came to see our struggles as your own, and leaned into championing a more socially just and equitable world for us all.

– Originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of the MB Teacher

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