Atomium Culture

Atomium Culture

The Permanent Platform of Atomium Culture brings together some of the most authoritative universities, newspapers and businesses in Europe to increase the movement of knowledge: across borders, across sectors and to the public at large.
La plataforma permanente Atomium Culture reúne a las universidades, periódicos y empresas más prestigiosos de Europa para promover el flujo del conocimiento más allá de fronteras, entre sectores y hacia el público en general.

Theatrical Representation of Scientific Ideas: A Research and Development Project for Improving the Teaching of Science

Por: | 25 de mayo de 2013

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Teaching student teachers how to teach is a complex matter. Early childhood student teachers, for example, learn various teaching techniques, but these are not always well connected across disciplines. For instance, they learn pedagogical techniques like puppet theatre to communicate social or moral ideas; in contrast, science-based methods are used to initiate children into scientific culture. Theatrical expression has not been promoted as a method to learn science. This difference was highly debated in the so-called “science wars” initiated by critics of the scientific method in the United States in the nineties.

In terms of engagement, puppet theatre classes are popular among students and attended in great numbers. The student teachers also spend time creating educationally effective and artistically adequate theatrical approaches, which “enchant” as well as educate their future students.

In contrast, the proportion of students attending science-based classes is low. Many students approach science with fear: some believe they will not understand the content and others feel they already know it. The results are poor, with few student creations being pedagogically and scientifically adequate.

This contrast in results led us to undertake research into whether it is possible to project scientific ideas through theatre-based class structures. While theatrical teaching uses images, motion and sound to narrate study topics, scientific discourse does not; instead, it is declarative and uses few, often static images. In the book “The Culture of Education,” J. S. Bruner proposed teaching science through narratives or stories. However, some teachers are unable to create stories that hold the students’ interest. Instead, they create narratives within the scientific world that many students find tedious. International theatres have staged performances dealing with scientific issues, but most concern the life of scientists or the social effects of their work. Although the performances may address the narrative needs of a theatrical production, they do not focus on scientific ideas, theories or artefacts.

In our research, we worked with students who were not well-versed in science or drama and asked them to present scientific ideas theatrically. Our first experiment taught them scientific ideas about light by using generally accepted laboratory activities. We also taught them shadow-theatre techniques. We then asked them to form groups and produce short theatrical presentations about a scientific concept or a function of light. The presentations were theatrically adequate or good, but adequate scientific content was often lacking. As drama had swallowed science, the experiment was deemed a failure.

We then changed the scientific information source and used textbooks to teach a variety of theories on the nature of light, and asked the students to develop theatrical presentations highlighting those theories. The results were not much better than before, but the theatrical studies that successfully integrated scientific content into a theatrical narrative had included personification of physical entities. For example, a narrative on the plight of a ray that loved changing colour by passing through coloured cellophane successful incorporated Newtonian concepts related to colour.

Our findings have been presented at conferences and reported in journals in the fields of theatre and science education. In general, our findings have been received positively; however, the basic criticism is that improvements to our sources of scientific information are needed. We then searched for well-written science texts that could complement and coexist with the glitter of drama and selected portions of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, written in 1632. Translated excerpts were used in our third experiment. The excerpts brought to life the historical context in which the text was written and student interest levels increased. They immersed themselves in the dialogues, took on various roles, formed “camps,” singled out challenging scientific ideas and completed a series of successful theatrical presentations. Our third experiment was repeated twice and the combined results support the proposal to create and use science-making stories. Based on that success, our science education classes use a commented translation of Galileo’s Dialogue as a basic reference text.

Today, we are seeing changes to the teaching of science brought forth from our research. We continue to look for and develop science-making stories by using texts in which scientists present their passions, successes and mistakes. Classes using such texts are attempting to develop innovations in theatrical expression, such as using theatrical presentation to teach mathematical concepts. Nevertheless, our research has failed to answer a tormenting question: Why does science-based presentation of scientific experiments result in bad theatrical performances?


Dr Vasilis Tselfes and Dr Antigoni Paroussi
University of Athens

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