Let’s turn up the heat and turn STEM into STEAM

Thalyana Smith-Vikos 


I recently had the pleasure of watching an amazing performance of the Pilobolus acrobatic modern dance troupe, and something in the program caught my eye: it said that the dancers had worked with MIT scientists to develop new dance routines! This was quite evident in the “Automaton” performance, in which the dancers were all arranged into different acrobatic positions and moved in unison to create the effect that they were all parts of a robot. It was really quite astonishing: at first, I was just watching the dancers on stage, but then suddenly it really looked like there was a robot moving across the floor. With many kids in the audience, there was definitely a lot of oohing and aahing at this moment.

Another example where it was evident that the dancers had worked with scientists was in the “Sextet” performance, in which the performers placed pieces of rope on the stage and then moved the rope (like doing double dutch) in sync with the music to mimic sound waves. As additional beats were added to the music, more dancers appeared with rope to start copying those specific sound waves, and suddenly there was an entire orchestra on the stage! The dancers moved with such grace and poise while still perfectly depicting sound waves with the rope; it reminded me of ribbon dancing at the Olympics. There were more oohs and aahs during this performance, and I thought to myself, “That’s not just the art of music, kids, that’s the art of science.”

Since its founding in 1971, Pilobolus has been devoted to establishing educational programs to encourage kids to develop an interest in dance, and hopefully they throw in some of what they learned from the MIT scientists, too. Using their platform, I think there are many more programs like this that could help encourage the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Educational Initiative, an addendum to the STEM Initiative.

The City University of New York (CUNY) has a Science & the Arts program funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Examples of recent performances include AstroDance, a multimedia dance performance illustrating the discovery of gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and DNA Story, a play that tells the story of how Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s. While the NSF remains concerned about how to fund the “broader impacts” of science research, I think this is actually a great way for the NSF to promote science education, by funding groups that present the beauty of scientific discovery in an entertaining and approachable manner.

Here’s another example that the NSF could support: the Cambridge, MA game company Harmonix creates technology for the Xbox game “Dance Central,” which allows players to learn dance routines step by step without a controller. Students could be invited to spend the day in the music lab learning how to translate the K-pop hit “Gangnam Style” into an interactive game. Who doesn’t love “Gangnam Style”? And who doesn’t love video games? This would go over in a heartbeat.

And then there’s the initiative to have students rap about scientific principles, which has garnered a lot of support and been quite successful in getting students interested in science. The program was started when Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University professor, and GZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, met with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an outgoing physicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, at a radio show. Starting in New York City public schools, they launched a pilot project to bring hip-hop and rap into science classrooms. There’s a lot that can be learned from the success of Emdin and GZA’s program that could be implemented in schools across the country, namely teaching science using something that students already enjoy and can relate to. In fact, in a manner that deGrasse Tyson has termed “dropping science,” GZA will be rapping about the Big Bang in his upcoming album “Dark Matter;” hopefully his younger fans will take to the album and be inspired.

There’s really no limit as to how STEAM education can be accomplished, whether it be acting, dancing or rapping. Many scientists themselves have an artistic inclination, which could lead to initiatives where scientists visit classrooms and teach the artistic side of science. Take the winners of the annual “Dance Your PhD” contest (which Pilobolus dancers help judge): these are scientists who are conducting their thesis research in the lab and have found a way to illustrate their research using interpretive dance.

If you would rather scientists sing instead of dance in the classroom, I’m sure Indre Viskontas, a cognitive neuroscientist, professional soprano opera singer and TV host, could help with that. She has found a way to combine both scientific and artistic passions and studies the psychology of music, specifically how musicians can best use their practice time, and how they can find a way to connect with the audience. Viskontas is the perfect example of a scientist who has interests outside of science and can incorporate these interests into her research. Moreover, her artistic pursuits enhance her success as a scientist and vice-versa.

Overpowering all of these excellent STEAM initiatives, however, is the idea that while students may better appreciate science by using art in the classroom, this still does not mean they will want to become scientists when they grow up. Adding on to this is the misconception in the media that scientists are nerds, or that scientists plan to destroy the world in every Marvel or DC comic on the big screen. Have no fear, The Science & Entertainment Exchange is here! The Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences that connects entertainment executives with scientists and engineers to develop accurate and engaging scientific concepts for TV shows and movies. The Exchange has consulted on over 500 projects, and while it still bothers me that they haven’t completely solved the misrepresentation of how scientists are portrayed, along with the scientific ideas that are being discussed in TV and film, imagine how worse “The Avengers” could have been without having an Exchange consult?

Bringing this back to STEAM education, wouldn’t it be great if The Exchange established an internship program? In this way, students with the Hollywood bug could rub shoulders with entertainment executives, while also learning that they could have super cool jobs as scientists who consult for these executives. Maybe being a scientist is not so nerdy, after all.