David G. Wilder, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering, and occupational and environmental health


Use stories and models to improve understanding and interest.


  • Helps students understand concepts
  • Helps students retain information
  • Engages students


David Wilder explains how stories and models help students to more fully explore a discipline even though they are novices. Explaining concepts in a surprising fashion helps students to retain information.


David G. Wilder, PhD

Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Occupational and Environmental Health


Use stories and models to improve understanding and interest.


0:00 – 0:17

If you see something that's well-explained in a surprising fashion, is that something you're going to remember or forget? So my goal is to create unforgettable stories.

0:17 – 0:34

We can inspire people with surprise and wonder, and reinforce the concepts I’m explaining by telling stories. One of the things I think is a very effective learning tool, is kind of using the same cadence that people use for telling jokes. Basically you are surprising people with some unique information.

0:34 – 1:04

I like to introduce subjects in terms as simple as possible, because often we as teachers forget that we've been in our business for a long time, and we don't necessarily know the skills and understanding that our students are coming to us with. And so if we can start in as simple a fashion as possible and then build from that, I believe that it helps them.

1:05 – 1:28

You can do experiments on models without having to build the real thing. In engineering we use models a lot, and actually an equation is a model. But we use models a lot to try to represent something else. And what's neat about that is that you can do experiments on models, as long as the model represents what you hope it represents.

1:29 – 1:34

The spine is really a complex mechanism, and what I'd like to do is to tell you some stories about it.

1:34 – 1:57

The spine actually alternates between having hard components and soft components. So we're going to pretend that a couple of cookies are a vertebra. What the body does, is it has an ability to place muscles at some distance away from the spine. We will pretend that the toothpicks allow us to place the muscle, which is the rubber band.

1:57 – 2:20

And look at this, we can both stabilize it, and as long as the muscles - or the rubber bands – are working in a coordinated fashion, we can tip it from side to side under very good control. But again it depends on these working very, very well together. Each one of these levels can move in six different directions. So this vertebrae can move in six different ways compared to this vertebrae.

2:20 – 2:51

I want to make sure that you integrate this into your world view. As you're moving this around, I'd also like you to move your own bodies in a way that would create that kind of motion your own spines. Okay so, it can tip side to side. Okay so what would you have to do to make it tip side to side? Okay good. Okay. And it can also tip front to back. Okay, yes teacher. Okay good. And it can also twist.

2:51 – 3:11

Many students don’t have enough experience in an area to begin to know what questions to ask, and it's been so long for many of us since we've been in that position - if we were ever in that position. Because many students that we have coming in are just trying to explore the area we’re in, so they may have no background in it.

3:11 – 3:32

I started using these kinds of props to explain engineering concepts in simple terms and I've since used this talk to explain how the back works, to groups ranging from nursery school kids up to administrative law judges and Department of Labor testimony.

3:32 – 3:36

I think it affects the ability to synthesize, because they're seeing an example of strange pairings of concepts. And why not give them the permission to do that? To pair divergent concepts to come up with new ideas.