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Using Theatre to Teach STEM Classes to Youth

Walk into a science classroom and ask a group of fifth graders what comes after “Construct a Hypothesis” in the scientific method? You’ll get some blank stares and maybe a couple of reluctant hands from the usual suspects. Alternatively, walk into the auditorium at Pittsburgh Public School’s Sunnyside Elementary School on a day that Attack Theatre is teaching the music class, and you’ll hear shouts of answers. Some of them right, some of them wrong. Being correct, however, isn’t what’s important.

As theatre practitioners we go through a very intense rehearsal process. It is common knowledge that throughout that rehearsal process, actors, directors, and the creative team will experiment with many different techniques—all of them wrong until they fall upon the right one that will move forward onto the final performance. Less known, is that scientists go through a similar process. They come up with different theories that are all wrong until all of the math clicks into place, and things start to come together.

While this experimentation process is reflected and encouraged in art classrooms, it isn’t reflected in science and math classrooms. From my memories of math and science classes in high school, it was reinforced that in science only the right answers mattered and were to be encouraged, wrong answers were feared. This is where we as theatre practitioners can help.

performers with a rope on stage
Dancer, Kaitlin Dann whips a large rope, revealing a wavelength—one of the many scientific concepts that inspired Laws of Attraction. Photo by Brian Cohen.

I observed Attack Theatre working with third and fifth grade students at Sunnyside Elementary. They partnered with the science teachers to create kinesthetic exercises that support the science curriculum. This doesn’t require being an expert in the field since the teachers can help guide you. Additionally, you can partner with a scientist to provide added insight.

When science is presented through theatre, students aren’t as afraid of getting things wrong and feel free to shout out, or even dance, answers. By integrating the safe and friendly space that is the theatre with the scary science world, we can help make bounds and leaps in trying to diversify the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, helping the general public stay educated and up to date on science research.

We have the power to transform STEM instruction into STEAM instruction. We can create new entry points for students and encourage participation by a greater number and diversity of students. We connect analysis and memorization with expression and experimentation. We would help to encourage and not stifle the creativity that is inherent in science, and the critical analysis and rigor that is essential in the arts.

Our role isn’t to try and fix the education system, there are already people working on that. So it’s important to work with teachers to supplement their curriculum, not overhaul it.

Strategies for Universities to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in STEM
During my four years at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I have watched the rhetoric on diversity change from “we strive for diversity” to “diversity isn’t just about race or gender, we’re looking for more.” This seems like a perfectly reasonable statement but something about it bothered me. When the #BlackLivesMatter movement started being undermined by #AllLivesMatter, I realized what had been bothering me. #BlackLivesMatter is not implying that only black lives matter, it’s saying that there is an inequality. So just like scratching out #blacklivesmatter to write #alllivesmatter is essentially saying that there is no problem, saying that diversity isn’t just about race or gender is ignoring the race and gender problem that exists in higher education, emphatically in the STEM fields. We cannot wait for this problem to solve itself. As educators, students, and administrators at higher education institutions, we are tasked with solving it. There are three ways I propose we tackle this issue: going local, being collaborative, and being forgiving.

Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Tech in part to provide the offspring of Pittsburgh workers a chance at education. Carnegie was on to something important all those years ago—if we want to see change, we have to start within our own community. Local outreach is a solution that can be very impactful, but gets often overlooked at many institutions. Many schools see the point of outreach to underprivileged communities as a way of funneling students into their program. Due to this, they often expand their reach by making their programs national. In return, this makes the programs competitive, and you miss out on motivating students who won’t apply for a variety of reasons. Doing local outreach can increase the proportion of students you reach, and if institutions around the nation all participate in local outreach, then the funneling problem can solve itself through cross-pollination of communities.

dancers on stage
Kaitlin Dann and Nile Ruff mirror one another's movement in a compelling display of counterbalance suggestive of the ups and downs in relationships in Laws of Attraction. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Practicing what I preach, this year I collaborated with Attack Theatre, a local Pittsburgh Theatre company, to teach third and fifth graders in Pittsburgh physics and science principles through movement. Obviously, as scientists most of us probably don’t have a large arts background we can integrate into our outreach. But being cross-disciplinary is important. Scientists have image issues because potential students are scared away by the thought that you have to be a genius to pursue a STEM field and that you can’t get anything wrong. For me placing science in a theatre context was a way to fix this. It makes science seem friendly, approachable, and a field where it’s OK to make mistakes. Let’s be honest, most of science is making mistakes.

I believe that both of these approaches to education can increase the diversity of students in the STEM field. So finally when doing outreach, we have to be forgiving. It’s no news that the education system isn’t perfect. Students are over-tested and underprepared. Our role isn’t to try and fix the education system, there are already people working on that. So it’s important to work with teachers to supplement their curriculum, not overhaul it. Change is most effective when we start within our own communities and spread it outward.

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Nice post, Lina! And the dance piece that came out of the research was really compelling and fun, too! - Wendy

I think that this is a great idea. I remember growing up thinking why the arts were segregated from the STEM program. In society the arts are sometimes frowned upon when it should be embraced. Putting pressure on kids to be right and teaching them that failure is bad can take a toll. Encouraging mistakes and failing is the right way to go because after every mistake you find improvements. Society needs to break away from this and I believe that this is a great step towards that goal. I am really looking forward to seeing more STEAM programs.

Love this. Some of the greatest scientists were fans of the arts and consider Michael Faraday and his theatrics. We really must get away from this focus on STEM only. A love of life and humanity is important for all.

Thank you for this article! I'm currently working on a similar (but different) project in Evansville, IN, and I'd love to compare notes with you.