Using Storytelling and Drama in Engineering Lectures
Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1857
by Mike Clifford It’s 9 am on a cold, wet February morning. You’re an engineering student sitting in a large, rather drab lecture theatre, waiting for the first lecture of the day to start, which has the uninspiring title, “History of Technology.” The lecturer hasn’t even showed up yet. You’re wondering if it was worth getting out of bed.
All of a sudden, there’s an announcement over the PA – “Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning and welcome to Professional Studies. Please give a warm welcome to today’s guest lecturer, Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel!” The door at the back of the room opens, and a man, barely recognisable as the module convener enters, dressed in a frock coat, with an impressive stovepipe hat. The lifeless lecture theatre becomes a real theatre. “Brunel” begins by getting everyone to stand up and join in with the drama. He shares stories about other famous engineers – names that you’ve heard of, but whose inventions you haven’t had much occasion to think about, including what drove them to their technological breakthroughs. You’re starting to feel glad you got up after all.
I started using drama and storytelling in my teaching early on in my career as a lecturer after reviewing some existing practice and literature on the use of performance techniques in the post-compulsory education sector and creative approaches to teaching and learning. My approach sets out to reclaim the lecture as a dynamic teaching tool and to engage students by arousing curiosity, generating suspense and wonder, making the lecture a sense of occasion and raising expectation that the teaching session would be worth attending. I see storytelling as an entry point to introduce complex topics such as sustainability, as well as a means of supporting the needs of visual learners as well as those with shorter attention spans. It’s not simply about entertainment – there needs to be careful consideration to the link between the costume/story/drama to the module learning outcomes.
I think too often we present inventions, scientific theories, and mathematical formulae to students without giving them an appreciation of the often quite compelling historical context. Reading about the women and men behind scientific breakthroughs can provide a deeper understanding of what led to their discoveries and also act as a memory aid. For example, many of us will have used “Simpson’s Rule” to estimate the area under a curve, but few will have heard Thomas Simpson’s story. The son of a Leicestershire weaver, Thomas left home rather than follow his father into the trade. He dabbled in astrology, fortune-telling and other dark arts before settling into a career as a maths teacher, often giving lessons in London coffee houses. In London, Thomas “frequented low company, with whom he used to guzzle porter and gin.” He published several textbooks, and was accused of plagiarism, which only appeared to enhance his reputation! It is unsurprising that the mathematical technique to which he gives his name was used by Johannes Kepler over 100 years earlier.
I’ve used a historical approach to high effect in all the modules that I deliver, from telling anecdotes about the creators of numerical methods to break up the monotony of pages of equations, to recreating a gunfight that occurred in Tombstone Arizona in 1881 to demonstrate the ballistic properties of textiles (no students or lecturers have been harmed in the lecture theatre to date). Sometimes I just tell stories, or occasionally I use a simple prop such as a hat. Hats are very useful in that they can be put on and removed quickly and easily, giving a visual prompt that a story is about to begin or has ended.
Feedback from students on my rather unorthodox approach includes descriptions like “interesting,” “engaging,” “fun” and some have spoken of how it helps to see the “benefit of turning up to lecturers.” Several students also make comments about me: “the lecturer enjoyed lecturing on this module,” “he actually enjoys it a lot,” “he’s interested in the topic himself which shows and I think that’s the difference.” The stories / dramas “break the monotony with him being theatrical and all exciting” making “a potentially very boring subject into a gripping one,” and memorable “the funny picture always sticks in your head.”
I’m not suggesting that this approach is suitable for everyone, but equally it is not just for the eccentric frustrated thespian. Perhaps many teachers / lecturers are already finding their way down this route; after all, case studies are stories dressed in their Sunday best. Stories or parables, rather than sermons, were used extensively by Jesus in his teaching. The Old Testament prophets went even further, with symbolic actions such as tearing clothes, shaving their head, smashing crockery, and hiding stones in a brick kiln used to deliver God’s messages to the audience. I can’t remember any of the prophets being instructed to stand as still as a statue behind a lectern. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all.
For more information and a clip from the Brunel lecture, see: