Dr Erin Kraal | Dr Laura Guertin – Increasing Engagement in Geoscience Through Storytelling

Jan 26, 2022 | STEM Education

In recent years, educators have been trying to devise programs that could increase student engagement in courses related to science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). These programs could help to reduce drop-out rates in higher education, encouraging more youths to pursue STEM careers. Dr Erin Kraal and Dr Laura Guertin, two professors at Kutztown University and Penn State Brandywine, have recently assessed ‘Student Produced Audio Narratives’ (SPAN), a teaching approach designed to improve the perceptions of students enrolled in introductory geoscience courses and increase their engagement. 

Cultivating a Diverse Geoscience Workforce

Geoscience, also known as Earth Science, is the study of the processes that shape the surface of our planet, including available natural resources and ecosystems. While geoscience is a very fascinating area of study, recruiting students into geoscience degrees has recently proved challenging in the US.

One possible reason for this could be that, like many other STEM-related courses, most existing geoscience courses are based on traditional teaching techniques, such as lectures, seminars, and written tests, which limit student engagement and reduce their interest in the subject.

US National surveys have often highlighted the high drop-out rates for STEM courses, suggesting that not all students who have an interest in scientific disciplines retain this interest throughout their higher education. Similarly, surveys have found that only a small percentage of students who enrol in geoscience introductory courses end up graduating in geoscience.

In recent years, many STEM educators and universities have thus been trying to devise academic programs and teaching approaches that could increase the engagement of students in STEM-related subjects and support them in their studies. As most scientific fields are in constant development, such programs could also ensure that more students with an interest in science complete higher education courses, so that they can apply their talent in the STEM workforce.

Dr Erin Kraal and Dr Laura Guertin, two professors at Kutztown University and Penn State Brandywine, have recently developed a new teaching approach that could increase student engagement in STEM-related academic courses. As Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin are geoscientists, they initially applied and tested this approach in geoscience introductory courses.

Student Produced Audio Narratives

Most STEM courses require students to attend lectures and seminars, complete written assignments, and study for in-class tests. ‘Introductory STEM courses often employ traditional teaching and assessment techniques, such as multiple-choice tests, lectures and sometimes lab projects or reports,’ Dr Kraal says. ‘These techniques are not the most effective for engaging students, supporting student learning, and reaching diverse populations. However, they are standard, expected, and considered easy to implement.’

Student Produced Audio Narratives (SPAN), the new learning approach devised by Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin, aims to introduce a more engaging element to these courses, encouraging students to take a more active part in their learning. ‘We are developing introductory level teaching techniques that are meaningful to students and realistic for faculty to implement,’ says Dr Kraal.

The SPAN approach consists of a series of assignments focusing on various aspects of geoscience, including geology, hydrology, planetary science, marine science, oceanography, atmospheric and space science, climate science, geochemistry, petrology, palaeontology, and environmental sciences. SPAN assignments ask students to engage with these different topics by producing and narrating scientific stories related to them, then recording them using their mobile phones or other digital devices.

Instead of presenting information to students in conventional ways, the assignments proposed by Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin incorporate inclusive pedagogical approaches. These are approaches designed to stimulate the creativity and interest of students, by asking them to actively participate in their learning. SPAN assignments are inspired by Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin’s past teaching experience, as both researchers found that audio-production projects significantly increased their students’ engagement and in-class participation.

‘Creating a SPAN assignment in a science course is an interesting, innovative curricular experience that allows students to have choice and express their creativity.’

A Student-Centred Approach

Conventional teaching approaches in STEM-disciplines typically present curricular material as a collection of facts and patterns, without relating it to the real-world and to the lives of students.
In contrast, the SPAN approach is highly student-centred, as it implicitly requires students to link what they are learning as part of their course with their own imagination and experience.

‘SPAN assignments turn the approach away from the faculty and towards the student,’ Dr Kraal explains. ‘In a SPAN, students are asked to tell a scientific story about a science topic related to the course. By focusing on the students’ voice, we literally allow for students to create a conversation in a way that is meaningful to them.’

Narrating stories related to the course material can help students to consolidate what they learned in class, enhancing their understanding of geoscience topics and making scientific ideas more relatable. In addition, SPAN assignments offer students the opportunity to express their own creativity, personality, and cultural values, moving away from traditional assessment and learning approaches.

Ultimately, if students feel that they actively engaged with geoscience topics during an introductory course and found them relatable, they might feel more inclined to learn more about these topics by completing a geoscience degree and become Earth scientists.

Initial Implementation

SPAN assignments require students to present scientific information in the form of an engaging, creative, and enjoyable audio story. Past studies found that asking students to generate audio stories could make learning environments more collaborative, while also stimulating the student’s creativity, critical-thinking, and imagination. 

‘Our hypothesis is that the process of using audio will help students more deeply engage with the scientific world around them,’ Kraal says. ‘At the core, we all love to tell and hear stories. When those stories are told from diverse voices and diverse perspectives, they are interesting and engaging.’

Drs Kraal and Guertin first introduced SPAN-type assignments in their classrooms almost a decade ago, and they have since become part of introductory geoscience courses at both Kutztown University and Penn State Brandywine. The project involved an initial cohort of six professors teaching geoscience at the universities. These faculty members participated in three days of SPAN training and were asked to contribute to the development of the approach by creating or editing at least one SPAN assignment.

After they start introducing the assignments into the classroom, all educators receive ongoing support by the project leaders through monthly virtual meetings and ongoing mentoring.

Impact of SPAN Narratives

Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin have recently carried out a study assessing the potential of the SPAN approach and its effects on student engagement using standardised questionnaires, which were developed by their collaborator George Sirrakos.

In their study, none of the students who took geoscience introductory courses were completing STEM-related degrees, with 25% majoring in Business, 20% in the Arts and Humanities, and 15% still unsure about what they wanted to study. Moreover, approximately 30% of the students considered in the study said that they had little interest in science, while 50% said they had a moderate interest in science.

To assess the impact of SPAN assignments on the students’ levels of interest and engagement in STEM, the researchers asked them to complete questionnaires before and after they completed the introductory course. These surveys assessed their intentions to pursue scientific studies, their self-efficacy in science, and their scientific storytelling skills.

Overall, Dr Kraal and Dr Guertin found that most students felt that SPAN assignments had significantly improved their understanding of geoscience. Moreover, after taking part in an introductory geoscience course, students who had completed SPAN assignments appeared to be more inclined to pursue scientific studies than students who had not completed them. ‘The results of our research show that our approach increases a student’s sense of relevance and their future intentions to study science,’ Dr Kraal says.

At the end of the course, students were also asked what they felt the advantages and limitations of audio-narrative assignments in learning science were. Overall, most students said that they felt SPAN assignments were a unique way to learn science, that they helped them to gain a better understanding of the course material, and that it encouraged them to learn about geoscience outside of the classroom.

A Generalisable Learning Approach

If trends in STEM education remain unchanged, there could soon be a significant shortage of Earth scientists and other STEM professionals. Initiatives that can increase the engagement in STEM of students from all backgrounds are thus of vital importance, as they could ensure that we are able to meet the demands of the future.

The SPAN project has so far attained very promising results, suggesting that it could help to spark engagement with geoscience and shift student perceptions of science at large during introductory-level courses. Since 2017, the initiative has involved six other institutions beyond the Penn State Brandywine and Kutztown University campuses, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

In the future, SPAN assignments could also be adapted and integrated into other STEM-related courses, to increase the interest of students in other scientific disciplines.

‘Creating a SPAN assignment in a science course is an interesting, innovative curricular experience that allows students to have choice and express their creativity,’ Dr Kraal adds. ‘Moreover, as our study was implemented across a variety of introductory courses led by a wide variety of faculty members, our technique can be widely implemented.’






Dr Erin R. Kraal

Department of Physical Sciences
Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
Kutztown, PA

Dr Erin Kraal holds a PhD in Planetary Science and an MS in Earth Science from University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as a BS in Geology from Washington and Lee University. Upon graduating with her PhD, she worked as a researcher at both Utrecht University and Virginia Polytech Institute and State University, before moving to Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where she currently holds the title of Associate Professor. Here, she teaches in the physical sciences and conducts research in geology and planetary science. Recently, Dr Kraal has also started working on projects aimed at improving STEM education.   


E: kraal@kutztown.edu
W: https://erinkraal.weebly.com/

Dr Laura A. Guertin

Penn State Brandywine
Media, PA

Dr Laura Guertin holds a PhD in Marine Geology and Geophysics from University of Miami and a BA in Geology from Bucknell University. She is now a Professor of Earth Sciences at Penn State Brandywine in Pennsylvania, where her research involves the effective integration of innovative technologies to improve student learning. She is passionate about enhancing STEM education programs and increasing the scientific literacy of students who specialise in non-scientific disciplines. Over the past two decades, Dr Guertin has received numerous national awards, including the SEG Wiki Champion Award from the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and is an elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America.


E: guertin@psu.edu
W: http://about.me/drlauraguertin/


George Sirrakos, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
Ari Epstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

National Science Foundation (NSF): Division of Undergraduate Education IUSE Award Number 1708590


ER Kraal, G Sirrakos, L Guertin, A Epstein, and G Simmens, Impact of Student Produced Audio Narrative (SPAN) assignments on students’ perceptions and attitudes towards science in geoscience courses, Journal of Geoscience Education, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1080/10899995.2021.1969863

G Sirrakos, BJ Fraser, ER Kraal, and A Epstein, Effectiveness of place-based audio-narrative assignments in undergraduate introductory science, American Educational Research Association national conference, 2018.

G Sirrakos and BJ Fraser, Development and validation of the Questionnaire Assessing Connections to Science (QuACS), In D Zandvliet and BJ Fraser (Eds.), Thirty Years of Learning Environments: Looking Back and Looking Forward.


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