Dance your PhD? Implications in the science classroom… – Natasha Patrito Hannon

What do you get when you mix graduate student researchers, music and Youtube?  A global competition so compelling it rivals the appeal of popular reality television contests like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.  The Dance Your Ph.D. contest, created by molecular biologist, John Bohannon, and sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science asks contestants to interpret their Ph.D. theses in dance form, without the help of words or images.  Hard to imagine!  I often find it challenging to explain scientific concepts using words, accompanying powerpoint slides, and the chalkboard simultaneously.  What connection can there be between this slightly bizarre, but ever so intriguing contest (check out hilarious videos of the 2009 winning entries at ) and science classrooms here at Western?

I can guess what you’re thinking – ‘Cool idea, but there is no way I’m performing a contemporary dance routine to illustrate the intricacies of the Kreb Cycle’ – and while the Dance Your Ph.D. example is extreme, a number of faculty members are exploring the kinaesthetic domain as a mode of teaching science.  At the 2009 Canadian Society for Chemistry meeting, Pippa Lock, faculty member at McMaster University, described a new type of demonstration that she has integrated into her 1st year Chemistry course.  Guided by Dr. Lock, students in this course physically enact common chemical phenomena on a regular basis throughout the semester.  Each lecture, a group of students volunteer to be the ‘Chemistry Players’ and they use their bodies to illustrate abstract concepts like aromaticity, molecular structure and state functions.  Anecdotal evidence based on student feedback suggests that the students both enjoyed these demonstrations and also viewed them as valuable learning tools.  Dr. Lock described one particularly telling moment as she walked past a group of students studying for her final exam in a quiet corner of the Chemistry building.  Frustrated by trying to explain a concept in words, one of the students stood up and began re-enacting the demo from class saying, ‘Don’t you remember?  It looked like this….’  In the coming year, Dr. Lock will continue to collect data about the impact of these demos and other teaching interventions through a number of teaching-related research projects.

So, while you won’t find me doing the rumba in my 1st year Environmental Science course this coming semester, I will certainly continue to consider how physicality can play a part in communicating scientific content and will keep you posted about the types of demos that I develop.

Have you used a similar demonstration before with success?  Do you have any great ideas for a concept that could be communicated through movement?  If you do, please let us know!

References:  J. Bohannon (2008) Can Scientists Dance. Science, 319 p 905.