Cheryl Bardoe on Harnessing the Power of Literary Nonfiction for STEM
When I visit schools, I often ask students to share, by a show of hands: Who likes to write? Who loves math? Who is interested in sports? Who likes art? Who is interested in science?… The younger the students, the more likely they are to raise their hands for almost everything. As a writer, I hope to create books that encourage students to see the world as full of possibilities. Literary nonfiction offers a unique path to this goal, and one that is particularly compelling in STEM topics.
Humans are wired to engage with story. Evidence for this ranges from paleolithic cave paintings, to the epic of Gilgamesh that was chiseled into stone 4,000 years ago, to contemporary research where neuroscientists track the brainwaves of people listening to stories. Humans are also innately curious, and we yearn to make our mark on the world. Literary nonfiction represents the intersection of these powerful instincts. As an author, I weave information into a narrative in the hopes of helping young readers make connections that broaden their knowledge and inspire them to ask more questions.
My latest book, Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, demonstrates how literary nonfiction can engage young readers with STEM topics. Growing up during the French Revolution, young Sophie Germain overcame many obstacles to teach herself math and develop a formula that could predict how materials would vibrate. Her work began a path of inquiry that eventually made it possible to build modern skyscrapers and impressive bridges all over the world.
Is Nothing Stopped Sophie a story about math or physics? The answer is, both. It is also about history. And it is about one woman who dared to pursue what others said was impossible. My goal is to offer readers many hooks into any story. Some readers will be brought in by Sophie’s unwavering quest to learn, despite women not being allowed to attend college. Others will be captivated, as Sophie was, by the mysterious patterns that salt forms on vibrating metal plates. And yes, some readers do love math. Nonetheless, we don’t need to understand the intricacies of Sophie’s equation to relate to her passion.
In the book, I describe Sophie’s triumphant equation as being “as precise and eloquent as a poem.” This is because mathematicians themselves often describe their work in terms commonly applied to poetry; they strive for solutions that are elegant and beautiful, with ideas distilled to the purest form. My hope is to recreate for readers the sense of excitement that scientists and mathematicians feel about their work and to open a window into how they approach big questions. Imagine if we viewed the quadratic equation as a graceful, insightful expression of universal truth, just like when we hear the words of Shakespeare or Robert Frost. How might such connections open up interests and possibilities for young minds?
I like to share with students my own journey in this area. When I was younger, I used to think that nothing could ever interest me about sports. Many students are visibly shocked by this confession. Now I understand that inspiring stories are everywhere—as long as I open myself up to noticing and appreciating them. Literary nonfiction helps readers do this in STEM subjects by highlighting the significance, exhilaration, and human endeavor behind the modern advancements that are so easy to take for granted.
This interdisciplinary approach to writing parallels the heart of STEM initiatives. Educators encourage children to explore the world around them, synthesize information from many directions, and figure out how to make something happen. It’s natural for people to eventually specialize in fields of study and careers. Yet our lives are richer, and opportunities greater, when we preserve our youthful instincts to raise our hands and proudly declare, “Yes! I’m interested in everything.”