Acting/Science Mashup

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Caricature of a mad scientist drawn by J.J.

Let’s face it. Science has an image problem. Part of that problem arises out of a complicated history, but much of it can be attributed to the fact that scientists can have a hard time communicating science in a clear and compelling manner.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org) uses the art of acting (as well as other techniques) to improve science communication. Located in the Stony Brook University School of Journalism (https://journalism.cc.stonybrook.edu), faculty members include highy-respected theater professionals, journalists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as the extraordinary Mr. Alda (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000257/). Through summer institutes on-site and customizable workshops held at locations around the United States, the Center trains researchers, professors, health care practitioners, and graduate students to more effectively teach complex scientific ideas to a wide variety of audiences. Improvisation plays a central role in this training, helping participants to understand how they’re heard by people who lack the same expertise.

Could a collaboration with your university’s theater department improve teaching? What about student presentations?

Mr. Alda hosted PBS’ American Scientific Frontiers (http://www.pbs.org/saf/) for more than a decade and is deeply committed to public education in science.  The actor, director, screen-writer and author is best known for his work on M*A*S*H and The West Wing.

(See also an earlier related post about Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre: https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/act-like-you-mean-it/)

OpenLab Network

The OpenLab project (http://openlabresearch.com/about) at the University of California Santa Cruz is led by Jennifer Parker, an associate professor of Art + Digital Arts New Media and Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, an associate professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (http://www.nsf.gov) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (http://www.nasa.gov/), among others. OpenLab has been around for about two years.

Collaborators include organizations with related goals within and outside of the University of California system, working artists, scientists, environmental activists, M.D.s, graduate students, and most likely a few undergraduates as well. Projects range from an interactive sculpture/research on the topic of mass transfer in binary stars, to videos/research on the environmental impacts of latex balloons, to an iPad app for virtual group therapy for families with babies in intensive care (http://openlabresearch.com/archives/2774), to name a few.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

SAN DIEGO (March 4, 2011) Lt. Lauren Mattingly, an intern in the Naval Medical Center San Diego Graduate Medical Education program, examines a newborn baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

To give you an idea of the types of work possible through this program, the facilities used by the OpenLab Network include a foundry, a metal fabrication shop, a digital imaging lab, photo and print studios, wood shop, and a supercomputer lab for undergraduates, affectionately referred to as the SLUG. The performing arts also play a role.

Perhaps the important aspect of this project, one that sets it apart from many other science + art initiatives, is that the directors state a research purpose:

“Within this immersive environment, we will conduct research to acquire skills and knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries between science, education, and the arts while sharing expertise in collaborative research methodologies.

The following research questions will be investigated:

(1) How can we strengthen or create new methodologies that truly engage art and science thinking?

(2) Is an interdisciplinary laboratory space for cross-disciplinary and collaborative research more engaging and productive for students and faculty without these resources?

We should all keep an eye out for the answers.

Goings On About Town

Today I present a sampling of a few arts integration efforts at universities around the United States. I hope you find them interesting!

Undergraduate and graduate students participate in the Art of Science Competition at Princeton University. http://www.princeton.edu/artofscience/gallery2013/gallery.php%3Fp=1.html

Undergraduates in the School of Education at the College of William and Mary have the opportunity to do their clinicals at the Virgina STEAM Academy (http://www.vasteam.org), a public residential school for gifted middle-school and high-school students, set to open in 2014. http://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2013/wm-school-of-education-to-partner-with-virginia-steam-academy123.php

In 2012, Palm Beach State College began a 5-yr STEAM initiative with a focus on workforce preparedness. They plan to support STEAM program enhancement and provide scholarships and internships to undergraduates. Their website emphasizes the many STEM resources and programs at the college. http://www.palmbeachstate.edu/foundation/steam/

Detail a the roof of the College of Engineering at University of Northern Florida

Detail a the roof of the College of Engineering at University of Northern Florida

The STEAM Journal is published out of Claremont Graduate University. Their inaugural issue was released on-line in March 2013 and included academic papers, lesson plans at the K12 and undergraduate levels, and artwork. The journal is edited by faculty members and a Ph.D. candidate in their School of Education, the Director of their Transdisciplinary Studies Program, and Professor of Art. This journal could provide a venue for STEAM-related efforts, hopefully to include rigorous research, by graduate students and faculty members. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/steam/

Transnational STEAM

The International Conference on Transnational Collaboration in STEAM Education (http://stemstates.org/stemfest-malaysia-2013/international-conference-on-transnational-collaboration-on-steam-education.html) will follow on the heels of the World Conference on Science and Technology Education (http://worldste2013.org) this October.

The venue will be the University of Malaysia Sarawak (http://www.unimas.my/index.php/en/) in the lovely city of Kuching on the Island of Borneo.

The conference organizers at Science House Foundation (http://sciencehousefoundation.org) see the arts/design as part of an integrated approach to science education. The conference will feature panelists discussing the role of art and creativity in science.

Pinnacles at Mulu, Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo

Pinnacles at Mulu, Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo

While K12 education is emphasized on the conference website, post-secondary and higher education will be discussed. The call for papers ends May 30th.

Bornean Orangutan

Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

Kuching is one of the neatest little cities in the world, and Borneo is known for its extraordinary biological and cultural diversity.

Chinese Gateway at Friendship Park, Kuching

Chinese Gateway at Friendship Park, Kuching

Act Like You Mean It

If you think some professors can be stiff in front of a classroom, you should see their students!  Many university STEM courses require students to give presentations. Few seniors can present well, and some students even leave graduate school with lousy presentation skills, hence professors who give uninspiring and even off-putting lectures. There’s considerable overlap between presentation skills and acting skills. Nancy Houfek, Head of Voice and Speech for the American Repertory Theatre, has given some wonderful workshops on Teaching as Performance through the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning of Harvard University. The first two videos in this Boc Center series (http://tinyurl.com/dxqxhv8) feature Ms. Houfek’s workshops. The videos were designed for professors, but when your STEM students present they become teachers, so these videos would be appropriate to share with them as well.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through a process called sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in solid form. At room temperature it goes directly from a solid to a gaseous state through the process of sublimation. Dry ice is sometimes used to create a fog effect for the theater.

The topics addressed include:

  • Teacher/Presenter/Actor preparation
  • Landing your energy
  • Audience engagement
  • Addressing stage fright
  • The use of breath
  • Taking pleasure in words, even technical ones
  • The use of metaphors to address different learning styles
  • Waking up the body
  • Opening up the voice

There’s even an illustrated guide to the workshop exercises that could be adapted for your STEM classroom: http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic650252.files/actguide.pdf Break a leg.

Does the Science Move You?

Movement/Dance is being used to teach STEM processes, especially those that take place at less accessible physical and temporal scales. Dance/movement can be used in undergraduate classrooms to teach, among other topics,

  • the action of ATP synthase
  • the movement of blood through the human body
  • the workings of an electron transport chain
  • the role of wave action in marine habitats
  • transport within the vascular systems of plants
  • the evolution of locomotion in vertebrate lineages
Tosy DiscoRobo is a dancing robot. The Best of Toyfair 2012 (Popular Science).

Tosy DiscoRobo, the Dancing Robot

When movement is used in STEM teaching, students encounter a novel way to learn the physical, chemical, and energetic components of systems. Students given full responsibility for developing a dance must ask questions about the science and have a rigorous understanding of their topic.  Dance allows students to explore ‘what if’ scenarios, to test hypotheses that would be difficult or impossible to test otherwise. Movement/dance allows students to express themselves creatively and as individuals, building connections to their core identities. Through this work, they are required to analyze and use the science, and are able to do so even when typical research facilities are lacking. If turned into a performance, dance/movement allows students to share what they have learned in a novel and engaging way. The importance of joy in learning can’t be understated!

Want to get involved right now? This Thursday, become part of a human DNA strand at MIT!  http://mit-human-dna-esli.eventbrite.com/?goback=.gmp_27230.gde_27230_member_229261384

Dance is also used at the graduate and professional levels (more on that later) of science. The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, sponsored by Science Magazine and AAAS, exhorts scientists to express themselves through dance, saying, “You’re a scientist. With your superpowers comes the responsibility to communicate the thrill of science to the public. Yes, sometimes in dance form. So dance like you mean it.”

Check out Dance Your Ph.D.:  http://gonzolabs.org/dance/videos/

It’s good enough for scores of Ph.D. scientists. Is it good enough for your students?

If you aren’t convinced yet, then watch this amazing Ted Talk by John Bohannon of Harvard University, the founder of Dance Your Ph.D.:

http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint_a_modest_proposal.html

Now off to practice my jazz hands…