Posts Tagged ‘ creative teaching ’

Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education

Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education,

by Mika Munakata and Ashwin Vaidya

By Dr. Mika Munakata, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University
and Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University

“Newton’s second law of motion states…”

In reconsidering the effectiveness of this typical script in any beginning physics course, it strikes us that while the standard method of conveying scientific information may work for the scientifically gifted and motivated student, it leaves behind the majority of the already scientifically alienated. Presenting a discipline such as physics as something external to oneself is therefore akin to alienating oneself from nature. Our understanding and description of nature is intricately tied to our experiences and sensations of the world around us; the Descartian approach of reducing nature to a set of mental rules, while powerful, is insufficient as a pedagogical tool. Along with a recounting of the historical reconstruction of scientific laws, students would benefit from (re)creating science. The rest of this article describes some of our experiments along these lines.

Students’ perception of creativity and science

Not so long ago, we administered a survey to over 200 MSU undergraduate and master’s science and mathematics students (Munakata and Vaidya, 2012). The aim of the survey was to assess students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. The questionnaire, using a Likert- scale measurement from 1 to 5, asked students to indicate the degree to which various disciplines encouraged creativity.

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

It first asked students to describe the most creative activity they have been engaged in and to compare various disciplines, events and skills against their standard of creativity. Our data (Figure 1) revealed that even among science and mathematics students, arts-related disciplines were deemed to be more creative than sciences. Further, among the science disciplines, those that were more applied (medicine, engineering, physics) were rated as being more creative than the theory-based disciplines. The somewhat favorable ratings received by these scientific disciplines may not be random or coincidental; several of the students taking the survey were aspiring medical students and enrolled in a physics course taught by one of the authors . These results were also confirmed by other sections of the survey that asked students to describe the most creative activity they have engaged in. The results clearly illustrate the perception that creativity does not play a role in scientific and mathematical endeavors.

Though the results of this survey are not surprising, they are nevertheless disturbing to the science educator and pose a challenge for those of us who encourage our students to be innovative and try to equip them with the tools necessary towards this accomplishment. If we strive to engage students in science in the same way that a scientist approaches it—that is, creatively— it is imperative that we expose students to opportunities to engage in the creative process early on during their education. This is not so easy. Unfortunately, creativity and imagination are seldom emphasized in STEM learning (NRC, 2005) with rote and dry instructional practices often leading to students dropping out of STEM fields (Goldberg, 2008). By and large, students, especially in introductory courses, are taught by lecture and their laboratory experiments are usually predetermined. This may be the case in other disciplines as well.

Some institutions have made a deliberate attempt at revamping their curricula; traditional lecture-style teaching has been replaced by inquiry-based teaching, often encouraging students to fully engage in the scientific process . Others have proposed refocusing introductory science courses to reflect two aims: promote conceptual understanding and showcase the process of scientific inquiry (Meinwald & Hildebrand, 2011). These aims can be achieved by making courses student-centered and encouraging exploration and dialogue (see DeHaan (11)). Yet another way we propose is to engage STEM students in activities that merge science with creativity.

The Art of Science experiments

The Art of Science Project: We recently initiated an experiment in our classroom with the help of a grant from the American Physical Society. The project, which began in the fall of 2012, involves undergraduate physics and arts students in the exploration and development of a hand crank camera and in the subsequent production of sustainability-themed short movies . This innovative activity, or performance, will capitalize on the public’s passion for movies. The moving image occupies an increasingly demanding place in contemporary life.

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

The amount of energy spent on both the production and consumption of media nowadays is enormous; cinema itself, however, was born of modest mechanical means. Just over a century ago, hand- cranked cameras and bioscopes harnessed human energy to present the visual illusions that still hold our attentions today. This project is a collaboration between the disciplines of physics and art at MSU and is being conducted with the collaboration of faculty and artists from across and outside the campus with the hope of bringing the playful side of science to the forefront of the student consciousness. The project is being conducted in three distinct phases:

  • Development of new technology: In the fall of 2012, physics students from an upper- level course worked together to investigate the mechanics of a working hand-crank video camera as a special project in MSU’s “Classical Mechanics” (Physics 210). The exercise involved discussions about energy generation, the conversion of mechanical to electrical energy and sustainable energy practices . In the laboratory, we took apart hand-crank units, analyzed their parts and worked on putting together one of our own (see figure 2).
  • The second part of the technical project, which is currently underway with the help of students from the physics club, involves the development of a bicycle-powered generator. Power generated by operating the bicycles will be stored in the generator for later use in projecting. With the assistance of a visiting artist, Anuj Vaidya, students from MSU’s art department will soon begin to work with the physics students to create a series of short videos that explore issues of ecology and sustainability. They will use the hand-crank cameras to record images for their work. In addition to these images, students will be able to use recycled sounds and images to complete their short pieces.
  • The culminating event for the Art of Making Science project will be an exhibition and workshop held on the campus and open to the public. The physics and art students will present their product (both the machinery and the movie) to students and faculty during a special presentation at the 4th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase event, sponsored by the Research Academy.
Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

The RAUL Showcase will also feature the Physics and Art exhibition which we initiated as an experiment in informal education to have students see the ubiquity and beauty of science. The exhibition showcases students’ photographs on any theme but with an aesthetic eye.

Students from CSAM are asked to submit photographs and to identify and elaborate on the science behind the art . These are mounted on posters and showcased during the exhibition. In all, more than 100 photographs have been submitted to date. Each year, a group of faculty from CSAM and CART award prizes to three student photographers.

The idea behind the events of the day are twofold: the art exhibition which is student- oriented gives the students a chance to participate in an art-science creation and get the audience in the right frame of mind to discuss the deep connections between art and science, and to reveal the sciences as a very creative enterprise. In the true sense of creativity, these events provide the opportunity for students to shift their paradigms about the nature of science learning. More often than not, we found the students pleasantly surprised to find physics hidden in the pictures that they took.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Reactions to these events:

We are in the process of assessing the impact of these events on students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. Our hope is to distinguish the effective elements of these types of activities to share with STEM colleagues.

Conversations and the general public mood during the physics and art event clearly indicated excitement over the photographs and appreciation for the theme of the day.

Students in the upper level physics class were asked for reflections on their experiences with the Art of Making Science project and their classroom experience. Students recognized that the structure of the course was different from the typical day-long science laboratory exercises. They commented that the ongoing nature of the project provided incentive to prepare between class meetings and also stated that as opposed to the question-and-answer structure that is common in other classes, this class was open-ended and allowed for the student to ask their own questions and to try to formulate answers to them. One student saw this as good preparation for science after graduation, when textbooks won’t be available to provide answers.

Students also enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the project . They learned how to work on their own piece of the project while keeping the big picture of the group project in mind. Teamwork allowed them to combine their knowledge and to share ideas . For example, some in the group were “better with their hands” while others had “deeper theoretical knowledge .” Although some alluded to different starting points within the group, groups were able to find their rhythm and learn to communicate efficiently and effectively. Students enjoyed that they got to know each other well due to the focused time they spent outside of class.

The importance of such experiments and informal events cannot be underestimated. They can be extremely beneficial in conveying essential ideas which might be difficult in the traditional classroom due to pressures associated with grades. Additionally, even the elementary mathematical treatments of topics in physics is seen by many students as being very burdensome due to previously instilled fears about mathematics and science. Our experiments have proved to be a revelation to students and faculty alike; it has allowed us to provide a forum where talking about science and creating science are both possible and equally valued . It has allowed students to see that science and in fact, even art, are not created in isolation; there is a strong tie between them that often goes unnoticed . In becoming comfortable with failure, we have given ourselves a greater chance of success. The roots of the notion of creativity lie in creation, after all, and our collective consciousness have been shaped by our students’ creation. As our project races to completion with the creation of the short film, we look forward to more shifts in our thinking of what science or art really mean. We invite you to join us for the culmination of this experience on May 3.

References:

DeHaan, R. L. (2005). The impending revolution in undergraduate science education. Journal of Sci. Educ. and Tech., 14(2), 253-269.

Meinwald, J. & Hildebrand, J. G. (2010). Introduction. In J. Meinwald & J. G. Hildebrand (Eds .), Science and the educated American: A core component of liberal education (pp. 1-8). Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Munakata, M. and Vaidya, A. (2012) . Encouraging Creativity in Mathematics and Science Through Photography. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications. 31(3). 121-132.

Goldberg, D. E. (2008). Last word: Bury the Cold War curriculum. ASEE PRISM, 17(8).

National Research Council. (2005). S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Eds .) . How students learn: History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, D .C .: National Academies Press.

Performing Arts as Pedagogy, by Christopher Parker

Performing Arts as Pedagogy

by Christopher Parker

Dog Days Peak Performances

Lauren Worsham in Dog Days (photo by James Matthew Daniel).

Part of my Classical Mythology course requires students to attend a live dramatic or artistic performance. Not only are my students benefitting from the rich mythology themes often present in live performance, but most theater offerings and arts performances are rich with conceptual undertones of psychology, language, literature, physics, biology, technology, history, religion, philosophy and mathematics. I think it is clear how psychology, language and literature are present in drama. It takes a deeper analysis, but one can analyze performances for the elements of physics in narrative—such as I demonstrate in some of the examples below—as well as the actual physical science used in choreography, sound and special effects . Performing arts allow for analyzing biology, not only for performances that incorporate biology in the narrative, but by scrutiny of the bodies of the dancers, musicians and actors as well as in the imagery present in scrims. Math is present in the meter of poetry (cf. Birken, M., Coon, A. C. (2008). Discovering patterns in mathematics and poetry. Amsterdam, New York: Rondopi). Religion and philosophy are there in story, imagery and conversation. Of course there are more connections . Furthermore, preparation for attending performing arts, and discussions about them, assist in developing skills for critical thinking, writing, philosophical inquiry and reasoning.

That is why each semester my syllabus includes attendance at a performing arts piece on campus, hopefully together as a class. At Montclair State, student attendance is free because it is included in the their activities fees.

To select a show and time for each course per semester, I begin by researching upcoming offerings with the staff and curators in the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) at Montclair State. The ACP often schedules these performances in collaboration with the departments of music, and theatre and dance, and help me arrange for conversations between my students and the artists. Then, once a show is selected for its relevance to my course material and appropriate timing, we fine-tune our collective attendance at the show.

First, timing: The exam period at the end of the semester usually means reduced attendance. The day before spring break doesn’t always work well either. So experience has shown that the best time to schedule performance attendance is early in the semester. Once we pick a good week we discuss, in class, the best night to attend the performance for the majority of students. Those students who may not be able to come with the rest of the class are invited to go on their own, another night . For a few, it may be impossible to see the chosen show at all, so they are advised to attend a different show. I may make some suggestions for other options currently available, and, for those who do not meet the performance requirement, I meet with them individually to discuss any conflicts.

Event poster, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Peak Performances, Montclair State University

Event poster, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Peak Performances, Montclair State University

Students are told that they will be writing a review of the event as well as developing questions for discussion with the people responsible for the performance (directors, performing artists, producers, etc.). We also may read some of the original sources of the theater piece. The syllabus clearly articulates the expected participation in live performances, and lays out what students can expect tied to the course learning goals.

Examples of Campus Arts and Cultural Programming

Most recently, two of my Mythology classes attended On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, from the Italian company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. More than 60 Mythology students from two classes were given the opportunity to meet with the director, Romeo Castellucci, earlier in the day of our chosen showtime. Then, directly before the performance, all my students and other guests were invited to a pre-show conversation with scholar Annalisa Sacchi, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University. This helped us to pre- prepare by understanding the context of the creation of the show and a scholarly approach to analyzing its meaning. These pre-show experiences develop an entire aesthetic: intellectual, international and historical context within which students could then absorb the experience of the performance.

Other examples of performances have been:

Sweeney Todd, which features a classic tragic hero;

1001, a re-creation of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of myths and folk legends from Arabian antiquity;

Prometheus–Landscape 2, a wild modern interpretation of the behaviors and personalities of the Greek gods;

Trojan Women, directly applicable to our course work, and performed using several languages (subtitled in English);

Kiss of the Spider Woman, linked to the myth of Arachne and the archetype of the classic Greek tragic hero;

But, while we were lucky to have such relevant performance pieces to choose from —directly tied to classical mythology—not all arts events are classic theater.

For instance, one semester a dance event coproduced by Peak Performances and Liz Lerman, called The Matter of Origins, told an interpretative story of the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb. To connect more modern narratives with classical mythology, we explored the connections between this dance and the story of Prometheus, the end of the world and other deities of war and conflict. Act Two invited the audience on stage for conversation, inquiry, food and art at tables hosted by “provocateurs,” which was reminiscent of the Greek Chorus, representing people from the community . Insula, a dance-media-music-theater piece developed through the Department of Theatre and Dance, was conceived through collaboration with Artist-in-Residence Kari Margolis and MSU BFA students . Insula was rich with connections to Greek and Roman mythology from Odysseus to the apartment complexes of ancient Rome called “insula.”

We were able to experience Polynesian mythology through the narrative and hula presentation of Na Kinimakalehua, a Hawaiian company of hula artists. The company provided a study guide on Polynesian mythology that accompanied the hula performance. It is always useful to connect Greek mythology and its archetypes to other cultural or ethnic mythology and how they are, in fact, related by similar archetypes.

Pedagogy of Arts and Cultural Programming and the Class Subject Matter

The Review: A week before any performance I will give a workshop on how to write a play review. I am a regular reader of the arts critics of The New York Times and other newspaper’s theater critics, and over the years I have developed a basic format for how to structure a theater review. I give these format directions to the students and we read aloud a very recent theater review from a newspaper. We analyze the correlation between a recent review and our basic format . Reviews on the Internet tend to be different in style. And even though the Internet form of writing contributes a different style and format from more old-fashioned newspaper theater critiques, I find the print format works best for the objectives of this assignment: assisting in better perception of the entire performance in relation to the pre-defined objectives that writing a review calls for; understanding the creative process and how art is conceived; developing critical thinking; attentively addressing source information correctly and making knowledgeable and researched connections of the show to themes in classical mythology.

Peak Performances presents Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project performing "Quintett (1993) choreography by William Forsythe at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Credit: Stephanie Berger

Peak Performances presents Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project performing “Quintett (1993) choreography by William Forsythe
at Montclair State University, New Jersey.
Credit: Stephanie Berger

Communities of Inquiry: Conversations with the production professionals for On the Concept of the Face were readily available during their time on campus, but this is not always the case . It takes effort to bring together actors, directors and a dramaturge to discuss meaning behind a theater piece . The ACP helps me every semester by organizing and arranging schedules so students have access to the artists. I always try to arrange these talks for students so that not only is mythology suggestively brought before them in performance by people of their time or even their peers, but that real conversations of meaning and intent can occur .

To first-year students, such conversations and the ability to develop rich inquiry may not be immediate and natural . So I prepare students in multiple ways: before meeting the production artists, we hold a workshop on how to ask good questions—that go beyond questions such as “when did you start acting?”—to get deeper answers, and we practice identifying where we find classical mythology in the modern day. We explore the Greek poets, their forms and narratives . Then, for example, when poet Tracy Smith was at Montclair State, we reach an inquiry level like this:

I read in your poem “My God, Its Filled with Stars,” what appeared to me to be strong links to mythology (however you look at that). You seem to carry the mythology from what appears to be Gaea, though you don’t use that name in the poem, to the Odyssey, which of course is in the references you make to 2001 a Space Odyssey and then the follow up story of 2010 a Space Odyssey. You must think myth still works in poetry. Do you? And why do you evoke the ancient gods, does your father’s affiliation with Hubble bring in any revelations for you from the divine, at least metaphorically?

The point here is for us to experience the presence of ancient myth, or almost any class topic, through the artists of our time. In this way concepts cease to be old stories in old books and something we live now. I ask the students to embrace this and recognize it and learn better by actually experiencing mythology in the world of successful and talented artists, including their peers.

But learning and practicing critical questioning takes some consideration and thought. We evoke these thoughts in small communities of inquiry with the goal of developing a pool of questions to ask our artists. We experiment with Socratic questioning, and its relationship to Greek mythology and other Greek philosophers and their methods of examining knowledge. Each small team then assigns one or two members to actually present their questions during our conversations with the artists.

Original Sources: In many cases, we will review the original sources from which theater has emerged, such as the short story “Dog Days” which inspired the creation of a new opera piece co-produced at Montclair State, also called Dog Days. Dog Days is apocalyptic, which is a common theme in Greek and other mythologies . The show also explores the animal in the man and the feminine power of the heroine . Reading the short story that inspired the opera helped us develop valuable questions for the librettist and director, understand the narrative of the opera, and the meaning of the musical score itself.

My more than 10 years of experience working with artists on campus has enriched my pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Infusing my courses with live performance experiences gives students a chance to find the relevance to the classical archetypes, evokes an enthusiastic desire for philosophical inquiry and critical thinking, builds (literally) critical writing skills, gives practical useful reasons for research on mythology or any subject, fosters public inquiry and speaking, and enriches the connection of the modern aesthetic with the literature of the past.

About the Author:

Christopher Parker teaches Mythology in the Classics and General Humanities department at Montclair State University and is also a poet and poet-in-the-schools with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Columbia University and is completing an EdD in pedagogy and philosophy at Montclair State.

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