Riding the improv wave into 2013

As we end 2012 and enter 2013, I am struck by the number of scientists and performance activists who are bringing performance and science together. Last year, as we entered 2012 I was excitedly and rapidly preparing a gathering of scientists, educators, health professionals and artists in Farmington, CT. The Performance, Science and Science Education meeting was held as a culminating event for the Improvisational Theater for Computing Scientists pilot project funded by the National Science Foundation (http://www.ccam.uchc.edu/holmes/improv/index.htm). The theme: Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER-http://site.google.com/sites/cestemer).

The meeting was convened to bring together the myriad of professionals who I had met around the country that were creating new performances in the classroom, in science research, in health practices, etc. Although I had been to a number of gatherings that were looking at Art in Science, coined as STEM (Science Technology, Education and Mathematics) to STEAM (Science Technology, Education, Arts and Mathematics) there seemed to be an absence of the discussion of the role of theater and performance in our educational or research practice. This is of course my area of expertise, seeing and bringing performance to science. There was an opportunity, something not yet done or provided that could be added to what the scientific and arts communities were pursuing. Given the meeting was held in January in a New England state and the lead-time was less than ideal, the meeting in organizing terms was very successful.  Nearly 150 invitations made, 43 registered and 40 attended with most of the participants paying all or the bulk of their cost to attend.

Importantly, individuals who have been working to create new educational and life performances (see the list of abstracts) were able to come together and see that their seemingly isolated efforts are actually part of a larger movement. They also created a number of small collaborations and relationships in which they continue to pursue projects with one another. People are examining how qualitative, social, cultural activities –specifically performance- contribute to our scientific endeavors and far more. One place that you can see the performance movement is in the bi-annual conference of Performing the World http://www.performingtheworld.org.  My work focuses on bringing to the daily science practitioner (e.g. principle investigator, research associate, graduate student, lab or department manager) the benefits of what has been learned in the practice of theater, performance and human development.

Through the course of doing improv-based workshops with scientists for community building, leadership development, collaborative practices and creativity development, I have learned of and met a number of scientists who are forging 21st century science into an open, collaborative and developmental practice; a practice that is creating an environment for discovery and creative explorations.

In 2013, improvscience will produce a quarterly newsletter introducing you to the work of practitioners and pioneers of new performances in science. Sign up for the newsletter by sending an email to info@improvscience.org with the subject "Sign me up".


In the meantime, here are a few of the people we’ve met in 2012 creating new performances in science. Check out what they are doing and let’s continue to create the improve(e) science wave of 2013.

Veronica Segarra is a Ph.D. in molecular, cellular biology. Her focus of scientific research is the endocytic pathway, particularly clathrin coated pits. Veronica has built from the “Describe that slide” game performed with colleagues at a department retreat to the creation of an improvisation group Improv Lab at University of Miami. “It is amazing how the idea took off and now the whole group is contributing and making it happen. I think that people’s willingness… shows that there was a need for it.”

Creating technology for new performances with science education are Ron Eglash and Deborah Tatar.  For Ron, he creates culturally situated software that places STEM concepts and skills within such genres as Cuban beats, African braids and hip-hop (http://csdt.rpi.edu).  For Deborah Tatar, she’s trying to engage students in college in mature classroom dialogues. Employing the software, ThoughtSwap developed by her then graduate student Dickey-Kurdziolek, students in class could text questions anonymously and classmates could then decide what texts to read aloud to continue the conversation in the classroom. This technology created a vehicle by which students could together shape the conversation.

Siliva Crivelli initiated the successful (http://improvscience.org/node/91) We Fold  project (http://www.wefold.org) which many would consider Open Science in a manner a la Gower’s Polymath project (http://improvscience.org/node/65) Using her resources and pioneering spirit, she invited fellow computational protein folding scientists to compete together as a team. With the National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC- https://www.nersc.gov) center, she organized a computing infrastructure to support an unprecedented degree of collaboration and sharing by scientists within their domain expertise.

Creating new cultural performances in science were the alumni of the Computational Science Graduate Fellows holding a +1 event and students within the Cell Analysis and Modeling graduate program of U. Conn Health Center organizing peer support. These seemingly benign activities- an extra day of a science meeting and students supporting each other- are ones in which the participants in a larger scientific enterprise built new/additional environments to support their professional development.

This is a just a snippet of what is happening with performance in science. I continue to meet scientists and engineers who are willing to do seemingly risky or ridiculous activities (improvisation, collaboration, sharing of in progress code or research) in support of advancing our scientific enterprise. We are an eclectic grouping that is making waves. Waves that we hope will continue to usher in development and discovery. I’m looking forward to 2013 and working with you to help make and ride these waves. 

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