Storytelling Science

Once upon a time . . . A Helicopter

Amitabha Mukerjee

 

When I go into a school and talk to people about storytelling and science in the same breath, people look at me as if, "Which planet have you landed from?" One of the greatest tragedies of India today is how the word "science" has been completely dissociated from the stories that are our lives.

Even when stories get told in relation to science, the stories are from distant lands, far removed from our immediate experience. Time after time, I will talk to schoolchildren about some scientific phenomenon like gravity, and they will tell me about apples falling from trees. And yet, none of them have ever seen an apple tree, and indeed, many of the students I ask have never even tasted an apple.

On their way to school every morning, on their own backs, gravity makes itself felt in a direct and unforgettable way. When I point this out, there is a sense of disbelief -- "You must be joking!" How can science be something out of their own experience, unsanctified by printed text on the books they are forced to carry in their bags and in their minds?

Relating stories to our lives

It is crucial that the content of the children's formal education be related to their lives. Through activities and play, our children must incorporate science into their stories. The Nigerian author Chinhua Achebe says:

The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards - each is important ... there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story.

 

The history of a nation is the meshed stories of its people, and it is the promise implicit in these stories that defines our future. Alas, in India, as in most colonies, generations of our stories have been lost in our transplanted educational systems.

The Helicopter Story

Consider this simple toy let us call it a helicopter. Tear off a piece of paper from somewhere on this newspaper, abt 4cm by 2cm. Then tear it by hand along the dotted lines, and fold it to get the T-shaped structure shown. Make two folds at the bottom of the stem to make it a bit heavy in the bottom. Now, if you drop this helicopter, it will spin to the ground. This most of us can see. But if I ask you will it spin Clockwise or Anticlockwise, you will be forced to think about why it spins. Although this question can be solved with little or no knowledge of science, even among trained people, nearly half the people guess either way. The only way you can be sure is yes by making it.

Having reached this point in the text, you, the reader, are thinking This making toys is for "other" people. Scientists, toymakers. Not me.

But if you do take a minute to make this for yourself all it needs is that you just tear the paper by hand and fold it then it can be a lot of fun. What is more, you can share your experience with children. Can you not spare the time to share a story with a child?

By sharing this helicopter with your favourite child, you will be creating a toy. You can invite her to create a story around this, starting with the line "Once upon a time, there was a helicopter. . ."

Together you can now make several more helicopters, out of different papers, of different sizes. You can draw an elephant on the ground and a group can play a game where landings on the trunk is worth 30 points, on the body 20 points, and on the boundary 10 points.

In the end, you can now ask the question: Why does it spin? Which direction will it turn? When you fold the two top halves in the opposite way, will it spin in the opposite direction? Together you discuss the question, and but don't expect to reach an answer straightaway. But in the process, all of you might understand some notions such as Newton's third law, torque, air resistance -- all through this simple toy.

Why you should be a part of Storytelling Science

This is the heart of storytelling science. Please don't just sit there. Think of a child near you, perhaps nephew, perhaps the maid's daughter. The less science training you have had, the more you can discover.

Over the next few weeks, join us for more stories of science. This is not a column for one child to make one story, it is a chance for us grown-ups to redeem our lost childhoods, to help countless children discover themselves through the power of stories. Do it. Do it now -- and it just might change your life!

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When Amitabha Mukerjee (mukerjee@gmail.com) isn't teaching Computer Science at IIT
Kanpur he works with children using low cost interactive toys to encourage hands-on learning.