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5 Ways Texas Science People are STEMprovising through Science Communication

5 Ways Texas Science People are STEMprovising through Science Communication

Students and researchers are stepping out of lab and onto the stage, building up their skills as science communicators using a perhaps surprising tool: improv theater.

Actor Alan Alda was one of the first to use improv as a foundation to help researchers learn science communication skills. He visited the Forty Acres and talked about the approach two years ago when The University of Texas at Austin first entered into a partnership with The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Since then, several efforts to help campus researchers learn science communications skills have sprung up around campus. Many of these weave improvisation into the process, and some are picking up steam this year as researchers prepare for a big opportunity in February. That's when the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is holding its annual meeting of scientists and science communicators for the first time in Austin. Hundreds of science journalists will be in town for the world's largest multidisciplinary science conference, and they will be ready to hear about new research. Improv-related trainings can help prepare participants to successfully talk about their science by building confidence, teaching about audience response, and conveying strategies for conveying complex ideas in an accessible way.

"This course has helped me practice the skill of being able to react quickly and think on my feet," says computer science student Wyatt Reeves, who participated in one of the improv trainings.

Here are some ways members of the Texas Science community are STEMprovising in and around campus.

Shana Merlin leads science students through mirroring exercises to help them better respond to audiences.

1) Workshops place communicators center stage.

In October, a pair of improv-based training workshops were held for science undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs. Shana Merlin, a local improv instructor and facilitator through the Alda Center for Communicating Science, was one of the trainers who led students through multiple improv activities. Throughout the interactive workshops students gained experience and were able to apply skills to help them communicate scientific research to any audience.


Students in Amira Pollock's honors seminar perform improv at a showcase event.

2) Honors students improvise as a class project.

Students took a deep dive into improvisational acting and science communication in Amira Pollock's honors program seminar "Improvisation Foundations for the Science Student." Students performed new improv activities during weekly two-hour sessions over the course of six weeks. The class concluded with an hour-long public showcase.

"It's so important to be able to communicate your science to the public," says Pollock. "Seeing the students feel that confidence during and after their performance was special. It's something I hope that they take with them."


Nichole Bennett (far right) co-hosted KVRX's "They Blinded Me with Science" before starting a new STEMprov group

3) Former student leads a local STEMprov series.

When she was a graduate student in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program, Nichole Bennett also co-hosted the radio program They Blinded Me With Science. She is passionate about helping scientists become better science communicators, and so she founded STEMprov, an improv program for science communication, to help introduce scientists to tools that can help them improve at explaining their research to the public. 

Bennett regularly hosts local STEMprov workshops aimed at helping scientists sharpen their communication skills. She is also presenting on the topic at SciComm South, a science writers' conference coming to Austin in January.


A new science communication class, based in the Moody College of Communications, is open to eligible undergraduates.

​4) Students talk about improv's place in the big picture of science communication.

UT Austin now has a science communications minor available to eligible College of Natural Sciences undergraduates. There are also new electives and an option for a Concentration in Communicating Science at the graduate level. Students in these courses get to delve into the theory of science communications. For example, in classes such as Public Communication of Science & Technology they learn how scientists can contribute to the process of helping the public understand scientific issues and the ways in which strategies like improv are being used in scientific communities across the world to improve communications.


College of Natural Sciences faculty are among those practicing improv with Assistant Dean Jen Moon (far left).

​5) Faculty explore improv in science teaching.

Jen Moon, the College's Assistant Dean for Non-Tenure Track Faculty and an award-winning biology lecturer, has integrated improv into her initiative as a Provost's Teaching Fellow. Fellows are asked to develop strategies to improve teaching across campus, so Moon is beginning a pilot course for faculty that allows them to experiment with conveying technical and scientific concepts, as well as learn how to guide impromptu classroom discussions in a fruitful way, using tools from improv.



And for some ​bonus science-communication fun…

Life science librarian Roxanne Bogucka, organizer of the Science in Plain English competition, poses with the 2017 contest winner, biochemistry senior Lisa Strong. Photo Credit: Evelyn Moreno, The Daily Texan

Students compete, open-mic style.

Fourteen UT Austin students, some of them trained earlier at the improv-based workshops on campus this fall, competed on October 19 to win the Science in Plain English contest. The open-mic style competition allowed students to describe their research without any props or slides and as straightforwardly as possible. This year's winner, biochemistry senior Lisa Strong used a lock-and-key metaphor to describe drug-molecule binding research she does in the lab of chemist Lauren Webb. She won a cash prize and a free registration to the AAAS annual meeting in February.

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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

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