Storytelling by the points of a compass: how story maps can bring to life conference and course learning experiences


Published: 3Feb2021

By Véronique Brulé (Office of Science Education)

Conferences are often a flurry of racing from one presentation room to the next (always seemingly at opposite ends of the venue), with a brief stop in between for a coffee to stay energized. We get caught up in the whirlwind of learning new topics, getting ideas, meeting people; the opportunity to shake up our thinking and dream big about potential projects. In the days following a conference we hang onto those idea sparks, letting them take on semi-tangible forms in our minds, but all too soon they are forgotten as quick scribbles in a notepad as work routines and obligations take precedence. However, one of the most important aspects of going to conferences or participating in courses is being able to bring that knowledge back to the campus community, to share and to inspire others with what we have learned. So how can we document our experiences in meaningful ways to inform others (and so they live on outside of a half-used conference notepad buried in a to-do pile on our desks)?

Ingrid Birker, of Public Program and Education at the Redpath Museum, took a unique approach to capturing her learning experience in a wild mushroom course last summer. Ingrid is a recipient of the Science Education Conference Award (SECA) offered by the Office of Science Education. This annual award supports members of the Faculty of Science who would like to participate in scholarly exchange related to science education at the local, national, or international level. With her SECA, Ingrid pursued a course offered by Montréal’s MycoBoutique on topics that she could apply to her work at the Redpath Museum.

Examples of eligible exchanges attended by other SECA awardees include conferences hosted by:

  • The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
  • The National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST)
  • The Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CCCE)
  • State of the Map (SOTM)
  • The National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology (NTOP)
  • The Queer Atlantic Canadian STEM (QAtCanSTEM) colloquium

While Ingrid initially intended to share her course experience through in-person activities, the transition to remote teaching and working required her to rethink how she would share her knowledge with campus and public communities. The idea for the story map came from transforming other Public Program and Education events into online counterparts. “The story map is a great way to visually represent a lot of information in an exploratory way,” says Ingrid, “It helps to transfer the fun experience of Redpath [Museum] walking and guided tours to an online format and to engage people on a different level.”

Ingrid used ArcGIS StoryMaps to narrate her course experience. Arc Graphic Information Systems (GIS) StoryMaps is a web-based application that allows authors to embed text and other media within an interactive map. The result: an immersive, digital storytelling experience for readers that adds a sense of place and another contextual dimension to stories. In Ingrid’s map, she highlights the locations where she foraged for wild mushrooms alongside stories of medicinal, artistic, and culinary uses for the mushrooms she gathered. The map showcases not only the large variety of wild mushrooms local to Québec, but also their cultural impact and society’s connection to nature, something that may not have been as obvious without the interactive map component of Ingrid’s story.

“I have had a great time constructing them and launching them,” says Ingrid of the three story maps she has created to date. Story maps are one of countless outreach initiatives that are part of a tradition of McGill students, researchers and staff making connections with the wider community. In the present time of crisis, Ingrid’s use of the StoryMaps application is a testament to how outreach groups across the Faculty of Science have found new ways to connect in response to the restrictions on in-person activities that have been in place since March 2020. Ingrid’s story maps have also reached a broader audience than she anticipated; the Fossil map, for example, has had approximately 2000 views since its publication in September 2020. The story maps also connected Ingrid with McGill students Kaja Surborg (B.A., double major in Political Science and Geography) and Meghomita Das (PhD candidate, Earth and Planetary Science, Faculty of Science), who helped her create two other story maps on trees and fossils. Science Outreach Program Adviser Jacky Farrell notes that the past ten months have been a time of high creativity and learning for the science outreach groups and the public programming team at the Redpath Museum. Support from the SECA made this engaging story map possible and it will provide inspiration to others looking for innovative and meaningful ways to share their science online.

Applications for this year’s SECA are now open until March 1, 2021

As part of the Office of Science Education mandate to promote an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning in the Faculty of Science, we are offering up to 10 annual conference awards to students, staff and faculty. The awards will support all those in the Faculty of Science who would like to participate in scholarly exchange related to science education at the local, national or international level. To read more about the award or to apply, visit

Story maps and Science Outreach opportunities

Land Acknowledgement

McGill University is located on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. McGill honours, recognizes and respects these nations as the traditional stewards of the lands and waters on which we meet today.

The Redpath Museum's director EDI statement.

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