Honors class: Communicating Science with Improv

(This semester, I’m teaching an Honors course all about ICAT. We spend each class period in a different ICAT studio or on a different ICAT project. This is another in a series of guest blogs from my students. Stay tuned for more. Enjoy! ~Phyllis)

From guest blogger Chad Biever:

Well, score a victory for the non-traditional classroom experience. This week’s class took us beyond the traditional classroom lecture and beyond even the less-traditional lab tours. Instead, we played a series of improvisational theater-inspired games to help us learn to communicate science to the public. We then discussed the importance of being able to communicate science and the challenges we may face in trying to do so, and how these ideas may be applicable in the future.

List out the activities we did, you would be hard-pressed to show how they teach us to discuss science. We opened with a name-learning game that connected every person’s name to an action related to an activity they liked to do. This seemed more successful than the many name-learning exercises I’ve been subjected to over the years. We then moved into a game that had us standing in a circle and looking to make eye contact with another person in the circle. If that person you see said “yes”, you would move to take their place. Move too early, and you were out. While the word “yes” lost all meaning after a while (and left me wanting to listen to 90125), it did show some principles of conscientiousness while working with others. Another game that had us having to call out an assigned number as it constantly shifted sought to teach similar ideas.

Perhaps the most interesting game happened in the middle of the class. We were first asked to make a circle. Then we had to make a letter A. Then a letter P. We had our right to speak taken away. Then a letter S. We lost our right to gesticulate. Then a letter Q. Then a circle again. Everything was going smoothly. Then a T. Then an M. Then an elephant. That threw a wrench into our plans. Without any way of communicating besides body position and facial expressions we had difficulty coming to an agreement about whether we were making a 2D or 3D elephant, an elephant face or a full elephant, or a what any of this stuff looked like anyway. This was interesting, since our ability to make letters was improved by not being able to talk. When the goal was clear, the nonverbal cues and subtle elements who took on leading and following roles proved more beneficial to communication. When there was more intensive thinking involved, verbal communication became necessary. This called attention to the importance of nonverbal cues in communication, a fact that often gets lost in my particular world of engineering memos and diagrams.

I’m in the College of Engineering, and engineering as a subject area lives downstream from science. Transferring knowledge from science to engineering is usually done through the trusted mediators in the Engineering Science & Mechanics field, the most feared of all engineering disciplines at Tech. But surely the profession would be well served by greater understanding of science. It increases the number of things that engineers can consider in their design processes, and thus design against a greater number of failure cases. Engineers would also be well served to see examples of how design and maintenance is handled in areas outside their own; you can look at the biology-inspired machines of Boston Dynamics to see examples of the creativity that can be unlocked when this occurs.

Engineers can also use theatrical techniques to explain their own field. Engineering is a tricky discipline to explain to the general public, since much of the field is, frankly, a bit dull. Even explanations of cool stuff like robots tend to either devolve into technical jargon or stay at a surface-level discussion. Since engineering affects just about everything in the world these days, it seems unwise to keep the public out of the loop. Finding out-of-the-box ways to interest the public will require thinking clearly about what would interest people outside of the engineering bubble by analyzing what they would emotionally connect to. Then we could develop engaging ways to hold public interest.

Communication is fundamental to accomplishing anything in STEM fields, yet it is heavily deemphasized in favor of technical knowledge. To be sure, many engineering majors would rather solve heat transfer problems than hold a conversation with a stranger anyway. But through entertaining games and exercises, perhaps we can make some headway and show STEM professionals what a delight it can be to share your knowledge with somebody else and have them understand completely.

Chad Biever is a mechanical engineering student trying to escape the typical engineering design team experience and find new ways to solve problems. He has particular interests in robotics, 3D printing, and part design work.

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