Physics as Performance

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 20, 2008

[[AAPT Workshop:  Physics as Performance]]

Today I went to a whole day workshop on doing physics as performance — using theater techniques to spice up a physics demonstration or roadshow. This is science as entertainment — which isn’t really a bad thing. I would argue that participants might not learn that much science from these things (they are, after all, sitting quite passively and there is not that much they’re likely to retain, sez the research), but the role they can play in making people think positively about science, and increasing their enthusiasm and motivation, can’t be misunderestimated <grin>.

The session was run in part by a lovely British woman from Science Made Simple in the UK. They do performances in schools in the UK (for a fee) and they’ve done some wonderful work. Check out their site. See in particular their movie of Visualize — a show that blended art and science. It’s dramatically beautiful, and was a science show done in a particularly surprising style — there were no words.

So, some of the tips that I took away from today were:

You can design your own song choreography. For instance, one demonstrator used the song “under pressure” and did a series of demonstrations about pressure in time to the music. Music has a strong emotional component and this can be very fun!

Use your students. Getting your students involved in giving presentations to lower grades can involve both in a really meaningful way — the younger students really enjoy having other students showing them stuff, and the older students get a lot of experience out of it and have a great time.

Make the tricks transparent. Try to make it clear this isn’t a magic show or a stage trick. For instance, if you have a laser, spray deoderant or fog on it to show the path of the laser so it’s clear what’s happening. Make it clear there are no strings involved if something’s levitating. Reveal as many parts of what you’re doing as possible.

Try to work in some sort of storyline, even if it’s minimal. For instance, one presenter had a beautiful show on the aesthetics of science, but the audience complained that the presenter (who was a silent presenter) didn’t have any character. They added a story line with one presenter as the bossy sister showing her little brother cool things, and he would brattily try to upstage her (this was the Visualize project I mention above). This made it much more engaging. Or, we were planning a demonstration on how you can see the motion of a human heart beat with a simple setup with a laser and a mirror. We decided we wanted a modern day Sleeping Beauty theme, where the prince (who happened to be a physicist) didn’t want cooties (or a sexual harassment lawsuit) and so decides he needs to find a way to determine if the princess is still alive, without kissing her. He rigs up the laser setup to do that.

Use lots of silence. That holds both for your voice (which is made more dramatic with lots of pauses and variety in your speech) and also for your body. People’s tendency when they get in front of an audience is to move around a lot and be animated and excited. But it’s much more powerful to have your body be quiet, and have gestures be clear interpretations of what your voice is saying. Also, to have gestures have a beginning and an end — they start, end, and then the body returns to a resting position.

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