Using theater to teach science: Fusion Science Theater

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 7, 2012

At a conference earlier this year on improving undergraduate education (CIRTL), I got into a conversation with Holly Kerby, who runs a program called Fusion Science Theater.  I was immediately charmed by the idea of using principles of drama and theater to teach science concepts.  It makes a lot of sense (and reminds me of the new embodied cognition work coming out of the Energy Theater project coming out of Washington).  Holly had separate interests in theater and teaching chemistry, and then the boundaries began to blur… As she was teaching, she found it helpful for her students when they acted out the models that she was discussing in class.  She since learned that this technique is called “Creative Dramatics.

I invited Holly to write a guest post about what she’s learned about how theater can inform science education.  Below is her post, which I think you’ll find interesting!

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When I tell people I teach chemistry and playwriting at a community college, they’re often surprised because they don’t see a connection between the two.  Neither did I, at least not at the start, but I do now.   Now I know playwriting can be useful for teaching almost anything, but that it’s especially valuable for teaching science.  I’m not talking about using plays in your curriculum or acknowledging the importance of performance in teaching.  I’m talking about methods and principles from playwriting that can be adapted and implemented to manifest best practices in active learning.  Let me share some examples so you can see what I’m talking about.

  1. Students act out the part of molecules

    Embodiment of metaphor: Playwrights represent unseen forces and relationships by making metaphors concrete.  Scientists represent the unseen, too, but their arsenal is generally more abstract: numbers, letters, arrows, dots, mental and physical images.  My students have a hard time making sense of symbols and models regardless of how many times I explain or write them on the board.  Desperate to help them crack the code, I began to use the students themselves to act out concepts, theories, and relationships.  For example, to represent the relationship between acids and bases, I labeled students with post it notes that read “Cl-1“ and “H2O”, and handed the former a card that read “H+.”  As the students passed the proton between them, the class identified each “actor” as the acid, base, conjugate acid, or conjugate base. This visual, whimsical, display was cited by over half the class as the reason they finally “got”  ionization, equilibrium, and buffers.  I have since developed “Act-It-Outs” to model polar and nonpolar bonds, electron transfer, phase changes, and radioactive decay with similar success.  The same principle has been used by educators to develop similar techniques like “role playing,” “creative dramatics,” and the “flash mob.”  The principle is more than just theatrics.  It allows students to connect to scientific models in a concrete, physical way.

  2. Dramatic Question: Plays work by planting a question in the minds of the audience. The act of asking a dramatic question, whatever it is, motivates the audience to watch the play to find out the answer.  Using a question to create a “need-to-know” has practical applications for teaching science.  For example, simply posing a question at the start of a class will focus attention and generate interest.  The more intriguing and specific a question is, the more power it will have to motivate learning.  I start my lecture on polar and nonpolar bonds by showing students diagrams of two water-soluble vitamins and one fat-soluble vitamin.  I pose the question: “Which one of these vitamins will kill you if you take too much of it?” and ask for their prediction.  Then I lecture on electronegativity and bond polarity as usual.  When I ask them to reconsider their previous predictions, they dive into analyzing every bond in the vitamin structures, driven by the desire to find the one that is not like the others.  An effective variation on this technique is to link a series of questions together so that the answer from one impels the students to take up the next one. All of these instances are direct applications of the playwrights’ use of dramatic question.

3. Learning as story:  Learning is a transformative process that takes time, strength, and perseverance to conquer.  This is news to many students who come prepared for a day hike when they must, in actuality, traverse metaphorical Alps.   If all goes well, they will wake up, care about and commit to the journey, feel lost, face challenges, fail, adjust, and ultimately triumph.   To help them step into this sometimes tumultuous and bewildering process, I talk about learning as story.   I ask them to tell me stories of something they’ve learned in their past and how they did it.   I tell them stories of my own learning and those shared by previous students. This practice gives us a common language to talk about the real business of my course, which is learning to learn.  Where I come from, that’s a big deal.

I think I’ve finally figured out the connection between writing plays and teaching science.  It’s learning.  Playwrights construct experiences that compel their audience to ask questions and then watch and work to figure out the answer.  In this, plays are learning experiences.  Most aren’t constructed to teach science, but they can be with a little re-imagination of basic theater elements and structure.

Fusion Science Theater

I’ve also used these and other techniques in my work with Fusion Science Theater, a cross-disciplinary organization dedicated to using theater to engage the public in learning science concepts and processes.  Fusion Science Theater shows follow a unique model of informal science education that is investigative, participatory, and multi-modal, and includes assessment measures embedded into the structure of the show. Current funding from the National Science Foundation allows us to train student and museum groups to perform our shows in their own communities.  Check us out at www.FusionScienceTheater.org!

– Holly Kerby

 

{ 2 comments }

Bill Goffe September 23, 2012 at 12:08 am

For a bit more on the power of stories, see “The Privileged Status of Story,” by the cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham. The title very much describes the article. As he puts it, ‘stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that our minds treat stories differently than other types of material.’ I might be mistaken, but I have the sense that stories are underutilized in many classrooms.

Bill Goffe September 23, 2012 at 12:09 am

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