STEAMing things up for scientists at the University of Miami

Contributed by Veronica A. Segarra, Ph.D. We scientists improvise all the time. Not just at the bench while designing and troubleshooting experiments, but also when strategizing how to best communicate our ideas to others in our departments, classrooms, and fields of research. And, while this might come more easily to some scientists than to others, having to improvise unequivocally makes our work and everyday interactions more exciting and interesting and adds an element of art to our science.  I and my colleagues at University of Miami have become increasingly aware how performance arts like improvisational theatre can be used to train scientists to be creative improvisers, communicators, and teammates.

This realization began to take root when I was given the task to help organize my department’s retreat.  Organizing the scientific program for the event was straightforward. However, figuring out an entertaining session for a group of scientists was a strategic challenge.  I remembered a past department retreat where some attendees were asked to volunteer to present (impromptu) fake and silly scientific figures for the amusement of the audience.  I decided to organize something similar, incorporating elements of our departmental culture.  Some figures depicted odd-looking experimental images, graphs, and diagrams. Others included a picture of the notorious departmental photocopier that always gets stuck, a picture of the familiar elevators that take forever to be queued and are often out of service, and a diagram of our floor plan, often source of frustration and confusion for visitors and newcomers. 

The game was a success and served its purpose- it entertained.  But it also catalyzed the members of our department to laugh and bond over some of the mundane and tedious things we go through as a community.  Weeks after the retreat, people continued to comment on how much they laughed and enjoyed playing the game, vividly describing their favorite parts.  A light went on when one of the faculty members mentioned- “It’s just like improv for scientists!”  I also realized that the contestants who had more experience doing science were generally more adept and credible when “faking it”.  I remember thinking that if one practiced presenting silly fake figures enough times, one would get really good at it.  It is like a workout for your creativity and poise!

I later became aware of work by organizations like improvscience and received an invitation to attend a meeting on science education in January 2012-- Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER).  It was not until then that I was able to put a name on what I had witnessed during my departmental retreat—STEAM (Science Technology, Education, Arts and Mathematics), a play on the STEM (Science Technology, Education, and Mathematics) acronym that highlights how training in the arts can foster innovation and creativity in the sciences.

I have since tried to nurture my interest in improv theatre and explore how to introduce STEAM into my scientific community.  In the process I visited with Dr. Susan J. Walsh (another CESTEMER attendee) at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL.  Rollins has a very vibrant undergraduate improv theatre group whose members include scientists-in-training.  Interacting with them and hearing them describe their group brought to life the idea to form a similar group in my community, one that focused on scientists.  This became an experiment that took about 6 months to set up, and a full year to learn how good the results were.

We call ourselves ImprovLab and we attract a variety of scientists, from graduate students and research scientists to physicians.  Although I was initially responsible for the logistics of the meetings and recruited interested members, it has now become a project that belongs to everybody and has a life of its own.  Last semester, our meetings were theme-oriented and focused on using improv theatre exercises to practice and improve our communication and creativity skills.  The themes included storytelling and teaching.  This semester we are shifting gears and tackling themes like teamwork that lend themselves to improv exercises involving more theatrical performance.  I cannot help but feel excited for the prospects of ImprovLab.

Throughout the process we have forged relationships that contribute to our sense of community and that always come back to what we all have in common: a love of science.  Members of the group have been able to give each other scientific advice and recommendations for experiments, and the group dynamic is highly supportive and collaborative.  After all, this is why we started Improv Lab—to foster innovation and creativity in our scientists through STEAM, and to enrich our community at the University of Miami.

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