Setting the Stage for Science Communication: Improvisation in an Undergraduate Life Science Curriculum

by Cindy L. Duckert and Elizabeth A. De Stasio
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 2 (Spring 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The education and training of young scientists includes the acquisition of a large and technical vocabulary, understanding a variety of experimental approaches, and application of statistics and mathematical models to analyze experimental and observational results.[1] Small wonder then, that young scientists often miss the larger point that science is a process of imperfect model building.  That is, students don’t understand that effective communication of scientific discoveries to all audiences must include colorful metaphor and models, and that these models aid understanding without doing harm to the scientific enterprise. We describe here our adaptation of theatric improvisation techniques to build students’ science communication skills in an undergraduate life science curriculum at Lawrence University.  These techniques have been informed by, but significantly modified from, a program for graduate education at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

As the Argentinian author Jorge Louis Borges would have us understand, perfect scientific models are useless.  He wrote,

In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it.[2]

Undergraduate students, who are just at the start of their scientific training, have instead a view that science is a process of learning about reality so that, eventually, we will understand perfectly the nuances of even the messiest biological systems. They often think that we are in the business of making perfect maps of the world and they are loath to relinquish this view.

Though all our students read Borges in our required freshman course, science students usually maintain their view that the accuracy of science is so critical that their communication of a scientific understanding of the world must include a great deal of detail delivered with a high degree of accuracy.  They try to communicate scientific vocabulary, the degree of imperfection of current scientific understanding, and the methods by which scientists arrived at their conclusions.  While all this detail is needed for students to build their own understanding of scientific results, or for the communication of science to professional scientists, students hold fast to this method of communication in all cases, thus obscuring both the beauty and truth of science.

Perhaps an example is in order. When a student wished to explain how genes get used differently in different parts of our bodies, she said, “Tissue-specific patterns of gene expression are created by cell-specific transcription factors binding to DNA sequence motifs upstream of the start site of transcription.”  Did you roll your eyes?  We did!  While what she said was terrific if she were talking to a group of molecular geneticists, anyone else’s eyes would appropriately glaze over. Our goal is to have her ask: “Did you ever wonder why your pancreas makes insulin, but your eyeball doesn’t?” Then she could explain that both the pancreas and the eyeball contain the instructions (a gene) to make insulin, but only in the pancreas does the on/off switch for insulin production get flipped to the ‘on’ position.  Do we really need to know that only certain cells of the pancreas do this?  Do we need to know what genes are made of? No! If she really wanted to explain the on/off switches, she could describe the DNA sequences as musical notes and their particular order as musical motifs, and she could demonstrate how these switches can vary, much as the opening theme to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony varies throughout the piece. Is it ‘dumbing it down’ to use these metaphors?  Also, no!  We have learned to be explicit in saying to our students that we are not ‘dumbing down’ the science – we are making it accessible and understandable by linking scientific concepts to concepts the audience already knows.


This then, is our goal for graduating life science majors: yes, they learn a technical vocabulary, experimental design, data analysis, and scientific writing, but they also learn that scientific models are already imperfect, so using a metaphor or an evocative description is a wonderful way to distill and communicate scientific information to a lay audience.  We want our graduates to be cognizant of their audience, to be able to react in real time to the cues that audience members send concerning their understanding of oral and visual communication, and we want our students to channel their creative energy and enthusiasm for their work to communicate scientific information effectively and engagingly.

To accomplish our goal of facilitating effective and clear science communication, we designed a capstone course in our undergraduate life science curriculum in which we use theatrical improvisation as the main tool to improve oral communication of science. The capstone course enrolls 40-50 biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience majors in their senior year at Lawrence University. Lawrence University, located in Appleton, Wisconsin, is a private liberal arts college enrolling 1500 undergraduates. The college has a strong tradition of individualized learning[3] that has shown great success in stimulating student interest in, and mastery of, disciplinary research. Small group research projects are an integral part of the biology curriculum from the very first introductory course through the upper level, and many students individually elect to undertake research with a faculty mentor. We have consciously constructed our curricula to build students’ creative and technical science skills, including hypothesis development, experimental design and execution, data analysis, and oral and written dissemination of results. We couple hands-on research with course content so that students receive integrated, practical instruction in the application of scientific methodology and concepts.  In 2011, the faculty of the college voted to include a required ‘Senior Experience’ with every major and allowed each department or program to design their own experience for senior students.  Life science faculty designed a capstone course that would directly address students’ needs to communicate science beyond a specialized scientific community and that would allow students to dive deeply into a biological topic of their choosing, whether as lab or field research or as literature review or distillation of a biological topic for a lay audience.

Our biology capstone course facilitates the transition from the life of a student to the life of a professional. Our explicit goals for the students are the following: (1) direct a project and produce a substantial paper written for a scientific audience, (2) understand ethics in the life sciences, (3) acquire skills to reach and teach non-scientific audiences about one’s project. Students begin their capstone course with their topic chosen and, in many cases, research or off-campus activity completed. The course is therefore reserved for the production of several papers on the student’s topic and multiple types of oral communication about their project. Students are primed with a deep understanding of some small area of biology and, since they chose their own topics, hopefully a great deal of enthusiasm for disseminating their understanding of this topic.

Oral Communication in Science

It is important to state here that even professional oral communication in the sciences is much more free form than it is in the arts and humanities.  Thus, the link between theatrical improvisation and scientific communication is not as distinct as one might initially think.  Scientific conference presentations, for example, always include visual aids and are never read.  Speakers are expected to deliver either memorized or extemporaneous prose while using visual aids as an organizational guide.  Such professional presentations are jargon-heavy and detailed.  Our undergraduates learn professional presentation skills throughout their life science curriculum and are acculturated into a biological way of understanding and describing the world. Our goal in the capstone course is to expand those skills to include distillation of complex material to create engaging presentations for broader audiences.  We, as a society and as individuals, need a clear understanding of biological concepts in order to make wise and safe decisions about our healthcare and our environment. For example, individuals and political entities need to decide about whether to eat farmed or wild seafood, comprehend the effects of our exercise regimens on our descendants, or accommodate an endangered thistle on the beach. The efficacy of a doctor explaining treatment or a researcher testifying in a Congressional hearing depends on clear, accessible communication. Thus, we work on student distillation of science for audiences that range from the students in the room (whose expertise ranges from ecology to neuroscience), to the college’s (non-scientist) President, to one’s grandparents, or to people in an elevator with them.

Well-known American actor Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University inaugurated a program in 2009 using improvisation exercises to teach graduate students in the sciences to respond to, and interact with, their audiences when speaking about their scientific work. Their initial students volunteered from many of Stony Brook University’s graduate and professional programs for a semester-long program.  The changes in the graduate students’ ability to relate more naturally to their audiences brought to life subjects ranging from optics to molecular biology.  In an interview published in The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine, author Kelly Walsh wrote: “To facilitate objectivity, Alda explain[ed], ‘you have emotion trained out of you when you’re writing science for other scientists in your field.’ But communicating science to broader audiences requires the opposite approach because, as Mr. Alda [said], ‘people like me, ordinary people, rely on story and emotion.’”[4]

Early publicity from the Stony Brook program began to circulate in science communication circles just as we at Lawrence University began our pilot life science capstone course for a few undergraduate students. Encouraged by Stony Brook’s success, we tried using theatrical improvisation to improve the communication skills of undergraduates. Our early goals for our students included breaking down communication barriers and giving students permission to drop the jargon when describing their work. As summarized by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, “Mild to moderate short-term stressors enhance memory.  This makes sense, in that this is the sort of optimal stress that we would call ‘stimulation’ – alert and focused.”[5] He later states that “the sympathetic nervous system pulls this off by indirectly arousing the hippocampus into a more alert, activated state, facilitating memory consolidation.”[6] If the neuroscience is right, our students should internalize better the lessons of science communication in the heightened alert state induced by improvisation games.

Early Attempts at Improvisation with Undergraduate Scientists

Lawrence theater faculty member Kathy Privatt introduced us to Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, teaching us to use a few exercises, including Play Ball and Mirror. Undertaking these exercises, let alone the idea of leading students through them, was uncomfortable and awkward for us.  Professional scientists do not typically engage in physical improvisation, though we do have experience with mental versions.  We swallowed our fears and jumped into using the exercises as a way to loosen rigid, nervous, and stultifying student presentation styles. We initially presented the exercises as our American theater-based colleagues had indicated was appropriate for theater students, with minimal preliminary instructions plus a bit of Spolin’s side-coaching.

In the first two years of our undergraduate course, the students only half-heartedly took part in improvisation exercises. We estimate that the leaders’ energy exceeded the total of that put forth by our students.  Some students responded with outright hostility and derision.  Their body language and grumblings said, “This is stupid.  I shouldn’t have to do this!”  We wondered whether we were on the right track or whether undergraduate students lacked the necessary motivation to use these exercises as they were intended. We also struggled to fit all our goals in the allotted 36 hours of instruction.  Improvisation was therefore tucked into odd 10-minute corners of class time. Students delighted in moving about but not in learning to interact with their audience.  Although instructors participated alongside the students to persuade them that the activities were not below our dignity and were valuable, students still did not relate the exercises to communication skills we addressed in other lessons.

We did note, however, that most students responded very favorably to a discussion of body language and its impact on oral communication. We mentioned research that had shown measurable results of changing one’s body posture while speaking, but we did not cite any particular study. The least expressive student of our initial class departed immediately after this discussion for an Ivy League graduate school tour and interview, and returned amazed that open limbs, leaning forward, and smiling had made the process easier and the response of the school warmer.  We had our first student-provided clue as to how to make improvisation palatable. Science students are further motivated when we connect the need for body language and facial expression to the fact that their audience imitates emotional behaviors (e.g., excitement) unconsciously in response to the emotional body language of a speaker.[7]

In the summer of 2011, the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University began a summer institute for theater instructors, university administrators, and science faculty to learn more about science communication. Among the colleges represented, only Lawrence University was planning a program solely for undergraduates.  We returned from the summer institute even more convinced of the value of Spolin’s improvisation games as a tool to help our students speak with their audiences, rather than at them and we vowed to increase the amount of time in our class devoted to these exercises.

What We’ve Learned about using Improvisation with Young Scientists

We have learned that one cannot just jump into improvisation with a scientific audience and expect the desired results. The barrier to doing improvisation is just too high and the students are trying to be too analytic to allow the necessary playful mindset. While theater students expect that they must transmit both information and emotion to their audience, science students feel emotion doesn’t belong in science. We therefore use science-specific modifications to open students’ minds to the benefits of improvisatory sessions.  We begin with a video from Stony Brook that demonstrates how improvisation can improve science communication by graduate students.[8] Students immediately recognize the problems with the graduate students’ presentations done prior to improvisation, and they recognize themselves in this position! They are then a bit better primed to accept improvisation as a tool.  We bookend improvisation sessions with explicit exposition of the goals of the exercises and a frank discussion of how students felt during and after the improvisation exercise. In particular, we find that it helps to connect the improvisational activity to human physiology.  For example, use of Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”[9] is well received because Dr. Cuddy explains the effect of body posture on physiology as well as on the reception of the content of one’s communication.

Early in our next course iterations, we implemented several small exercises that involve minimal speaking. The first exercise is a silent improvisation called Exposure.[10] We modified this initial improvisational game from one half of the group standing in front as the other half sits as the audience, to both halves of the class facing one another across the room, first just staring at each other, and then coached to count the blue shirts. As the two halves of the class face one another, inevitably someone begins to fold in on himself, or another person tries to turn away, or yet another starts to laugh.  Left alone, as instructed by Spolin, the behavior will devolve into a group giggle.  These signature attitudes of discomfort and lack of confidence, of being undignified, have been a plague in past years.  Our perfectionist students fear being judged, in no small part because their presentations involve a grade, and being found inadequate will not (they think) get them into medical school or a research program.  So as each behavior manifests itself, we address it. Their reflection on and discussion of Exposure have proved more meaningful than the activity itself and set a pattern of reflecting on why we undertake each specific activity. Exposure has proved to be the first time many students recognize the roots of stage fright, but as science students, they need to name and analyze aspects verbally. We ask the students what makes these reactions surface. We then describe each as a normal psychological reaction to stress. When we can talk about cortisol and other stress hormone levels, we are on comfortable, biological ground, and students become more receptive to physical improvisation as a way to reduce stress in oral communication.

Instructors also emphasize that we need to know why we are speaking in front of an audience, what our role and purposes are, and what we mean to do. We emphasize that the point of our improvisations is not to become actors or entertainers, but to grow to become more responsive communicators, for no communication occurs unless two or more people share a common idea. We want students to use the exercises to gain valuable insights to communicating with more clarity and to be more responsive to audiences’ non-verbal feedback. The discussions with our students helped us better realize the purpose of our improvisational work and, in turn, better articulate its goals to future students.  We also realized that we needed to start our biology students at an earlier stage of the theatrical process.  We begin each year now with an activity we call Audience.

Improvisation Exercises that Work with Scientists


The students are seated in a lecture room. They are instructed to close their eyes. This is done to reduce self-consciousness while imagining, and to simultaneously accentuate the emotional and physical states.  Closed eyes also reduce that urge to giggle or feel foolish.  Next we say: “Imagine yourself in an overly warm and stuffy room listening to a very boring lecture. How are you positioned in the seat? Where are your legs and feet? The presenter is talking about a subject you don’t quite understand, using words you cannot quite catch.  How do you hold your arms and hands?  The voice is a monotone, droning on, buzzing along with no variation in pitch or rate or intensity. What positions are your head and neck in? What expression is your mouth showing? Stay in this position, open your eyes, and without moving, slowly look around the room.” At this point, the entire class is usually slumped back in their seats, legs extended, many heads are lolling, a great many have their arms crossed, some may even have put their heads down on their desks. We then ask: “Why are so many of you in the same positions?  How do you feel?  What are you, the audience, communicating to the speaker?” We begin to discuss defensive and distancing body language that demonstrates where the audience members are emotionally and perhaps intellectually.

Next: “Please rise, stretch, and reseat yourself, for another day comes. Today’s speaker is animated, clearly one of the most knowledgeable experts in the world.   How are you positioned in the seat? Where are your legs and feet? The presenter is talking about a subject you never realized mattered so significantly. New terminology is introduced gradually and only as needed.  The words are connected to concepts you already know.  How do you hold your arms and hands?  The speaker’s voice conveys meaning with variation in pitch and rate and intensity. What positions are your head and neck in? What expression is your mouth showing? Stay in this position, open your eyes, and without moving, slowly look around the room.” This time postures are erect, many students are leaning forward, their faces are relaxed, and some are even smiling! “Why are so many of you in the same positions?  How do you feel?  What are you, the audience, communicating to the speaker?”

We also ask: “Which audience do you want to speak to? Why?”  Students need to hear very explicitly that any talk or presentation is two-way communication. Although only one person may be speaking, everyone is involved in sharing a common idea.  An audience contributes to the success of a speaker when it collectively shows interest or enthusiasm, or can, through disinterest or antagonism, make the speaker’s job more difficult.  This activity sets up the importance of watching one’s audience while speaking and communicating as an audience member.  Each student is only a presenter for five percent of the class time, but part of the audience for all the rest.  Some realize for the first time that they can gauge the success of their talks by postures of their audiences, watching for confusion or comprehension and changing their own delivery to meet the needs of that audience. The class changed attitudes about the usefulness of the remainder of the improvisation activities!


Following implementation of Audience and Exposure, with students ready for something more active, it is a natural progression to move on to Mirror[11].  In this exercise, pairs of students face each other, and all the students facing west, for example, are designated the first leader.  Each leader is coached to move one limb slowly, and the other student is told to mirror all movements and facial expressions. When the inevitable giggling begins, the instructor stops the exercise and then asks, “Why are we doing this exercise?  How does it connect to the previous exercises?” We hope that students will see that public speaking is a two-way communication between the audience and the speaker, and we hope they will concentrate on providing and receiving feedback when it is their turn at public speaking.  We then continue the exercise, asking for complete silence, and adding another limb to the movement, speeding things up, changing leaders, and eventually leading and following simultaneously (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Leaderless mirroring as students explore two-way communication. (Image courtesy of C.L.Duckert.)

Mirror is a great place to introduce some of the key neuroscience behind communication that convinces our students.  Mirror neurons were discovered in the late 1980s by a team from the University of Parma.[12] These neurons are active in our brains and the brains of animals as we engage our attention, watch, act, or imagine another being performing some action.[13] We activate mirror neurons when we smile and make faces at babies and delight in their response.  We continue to use them throughout our lives, not only to learn new things but also to interpret the emotions of others. Cuddy remarks, “In everyday life, this mimicry is so subtle and quick (it takes one-third of a second) that … it allows us to feel and understand other people’s emotions.”[14] When people use Botox to reduce facial wrinkles, they also impair their ability to smile or frown or mimic others, and as a result, fare less well when interpreting the emotional states of those others.[15] Our students’ mimicry of each other’s postures and gestures is crucial “in the collaborative process of creating a mutually shared understanding.”[16]  They then realize that their enthusiasm while speaking will be mirrored by their audience, thereby increasing audience receptivity.

Play Ball

Our most successful active improvisation is Play Ball, which students easily understand as relevant to public speaking.[17] Instead of plunging into this game immediately, we ask two student athletes to be the first participants, and the first ball throw announced is from their sport.  After a toss or two, we ask for a defensive or a scoring move. We then ask them about the changes in their bodies and postures and why they made those changes.  We ask how the recipient of the throw altered her stance or hand position.  It quickly becomes clear to the audience that the goal of this exercise is to respond appropriately to the actions of one’s partner. Next, half of the class is lined up on each side of the room, and students make eye contact with their partners. Now, as our class enters into ball play (with the instructor calling out ‘throw a baseball,’ ‘throw a bowling ball’), they use their entire bodies and change stances, throwing with different arm movements and strength for various ball types.  After instructors chastise the group if balls change size between catch and throw, soon the students’ bodies make meaning evident and they prepare the recipient for whatever is coming next. Faces look up as both their eyes and their understanding widen once the ball toss changes from lobbing water balloons or ping-pong balls, to “throw an insult” or “deliver a compliment.”  Recipients flinch or throw their arms wide.

Student discussion has emphasized the teamwork aspect of communication, where success depends on reading each other’s physical and emotional states. We add how every speaker must watch their audience reaction for confusion or comprehension so as to adjust the pace, depth, and detail of explanations. The deliverer and recipient influence one another, whether in the improvisation or in public speaking or teaching. Students realize that communication involves anticipation, intent, reception, and reaction to concrete actions and metaphoric ideas. They begin to notice how their most effective science communication requires continual non-verbal monitoring of their audience to ensure comprehension.

Transformation of Objects[18]

If our students have a favorite, it is Transformation of Objects. Participants conjure objects from empty space.  In our version, the objects must be pieces of equipment they would use doing their work or research in the life sciences, including equipment whose purpose or function may be unknown to them. Students are placed in a large circle, facing inward silently. An object is created and used by the first person and passed to the next person who repeats the use. The receiver then morphs the piece of equipment into another, uses it and passes it on. Students usually start with the very familiar — microscopes, binoculars, pipetters — but soon they are trying to stump one another.  Less familiar equipment such as a mist net for trapping bats or a fraction collector for protein purification is handed off to the consternation of the next person.  Surely we have all had to use something by rote that we did not really comprehend.  Students have acted out explosions and failures, eureka moments, and malfunctioning equipment.

This entirely silent exercise forces students to focus on describing things without words, a risky undertaking for students who have spent four years honing verbal and written descriptions of science. Taking risks visually, in front of a group of people, gives students permission to take what seems to them like oral risks when presenting their science. They are more willing to be informal, to use descriptive language, and even to use their bodies to describe how they did an experiment, to indicate the behavior of an animal, or to illustrate how two molecules interact. They get the idea that communication is much more than words. In short, they become more comfortable, even playful, in front of their peers!

Bumper Sticker, a Written Improvisation

After these initial improvisations, some barriers have been broken down, and students feel that the next important exercise is so much easier than it would have been without improvisation. We call this exercise Bumper Sticker.  Students are asked to create a two to four word ‘bumper sticker,’ or a tweet that describes their project in 140 characters. Students are given time to think for a bit on their own and then they write their slogan on the board to be examined by the class. The subjects of their projects are precise and detailed.  To communicate, we must first answer why should anyone else care? “ABT-737 resistant and BIM-SAHB sensitive cells ” becomes “I kill cancer.”  “Hereditary pancreatitis…so rare it is painful” is easier for anyone to understand than “the p16v mutation of human cationic trypsinogen (PRSSI) gene and hereditary pancreatitis.” We could be intrigued by “Let Buddha change your brain” to consider “the underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation on the hippocampus and frontal gray matter.” “Got Guts?” and “Polly want a forest” can move us to action more than “surgical protocols and patient selection in intestinal transplantation,” and “behavioral changes in psittacines in modern Neotropical contexts.”   Now we are beginning to communicate our science!

What Do I Do for a Living?[19] + How Old Am I?[20] + Where?[21]= What’s Going On?

Lastly, we use activities that cast students as performers and audience. The object is to have the audience identify what is going on. A scientist’s activities and collaboration with co-workers often requires coordinating actions in time or sequence. Spolin’s three games focus attention on behaviors that identify character as well as action. We use the three in combination, not to understand any specific aspect of life science directly, but to motivate students to learn how to assist audiences in understanding by using timing, pace, and the more nuanced aspects of body language.  The students easily become self-conscious and stiff, with some even refusing to participate, but group activities ease the awkward feelings by reducing the attention focused on any single person.  Simultaneously, injection of humor keeps student interest up and tensions down.  We found it useful to break up close associates in the class by dividing the students randomly into groups, each assigned one of the defined activities performed in the order below.

1.     Watching a tennis match – simultaneous identical individual actions
2.     Getting on a passenger jet – sequential individual actions with different roles
3.     Launching a canoe – coordinated actions in unison
4.     Doing laundry at the laundromat – distinct individual actions in parallel
5.     Carrying a 3m x 3m pane of glass – unfamiliar coordinated action in parallel

Unbeknown to the groups, each small activity becomes more difficult to portray, from the tennis match to carrying the pane of glass. After three to five minutes, each group presents their short, wordless play. The rest of the class guesses the activity, but we also describe how we knew what was happening in each scene. The students do not react to this as criticism or evaluation, but recognize that they are unraveling a puzzle as the performers struggle to communicate their intentions clearly. Although there is some concern initially, students rise to each challenge as they learn from the performances of the earlier groups even as each scene becomes more challenging. By the end, students are relaxed and feeling successful, recognizing that they often attune their actions to those of lab mates and partners as well as to less participatory audiences.

Science Café, an Oral Science Improvisation

To this point, all improvisational activities are performed silently, but we and our students also need to speak. Biologists are often asked to explain concepts to family, friends, even strangers met while running errands. Agriculture, the environment, and medicine are in the news and in our lives. Biological terms such as DNA, evolution, and genetics surround us. We want our students to be willing and ready to engage in public dialogue about science; thus we have invented an exercise we named Science Café in which students must explain biological terms to non-biologists without using jargon.  Alan Alda speaks of the “curse of knowledge, the cognitive bias that makes it difficult to think or talk about a familiar subject as if from a position of unfamiliarity.”[22] In Science Café, we work extemporaneously to explain basic biological terms to intelligent strangers. Students have either the role of explainer or questioner, both drawn from a collection of possibilities in a jar (examples in Figure 2).  The term to be defined and the role of the questioner are announced to the audience. The explainer must describe the term to the questioner, who then asks a clarifying question that a person in that role would want to know.  The explainer must respond using terminology or metaphors appropriate to the questioner.   Initially, our students prefer to act as the questioner rather than the explainer.  But soon they realize that thinking inside the mind of a non-biologist is also hard work.  Also, we found that student explainers felt that they were “dumbing down” material when speaking with those outside the field.  We countered this tendency by ensuring that questioners were identified as highly educated in other fields or in positions of power.  Students are not graded on their content or performance, but we use the definitions the students develop to help assess our departmental efficacy in teaching key biological concepts.

Terms to Explain Roles of Questioners
Autotroph The president of the college
DNA Your grandmother
Endergonic reaction An orchestra conductor
Gene An investment banker
Transcription A human resources manager
Trophic level cascade An electronics engineer

Figure 2. A sampling of Science Café Components


Over the six years we have been running the capstone course, we have become more comfortable with the inclusion of improvisation, better able to articulate its goals and utility, and student presentations have improved remarkably. If we have learned anything in our experiments with improvisation in a science course, it is that our students are more willing to participate when the scientific rationale behind arts techniques is considered. The more frequently we can identify and name, discuss, and analyze phenomena, the more willing they are to embrace these methods.  The neurological, physiological, and behavioral aspects of improvisation belong in a biology class.

The improvisational exercises we adopted remind us that we live among many intelligent and curious non-scientists. Sharing why we care, accessing the emotion behind our inquiry, can connect us with others. Current student Terese Swords writes that she “noticed [her] explanatory and communication skills considerably strengthen” as she “can more easily improvise responses to questions and tailor explanations to a wide array of audiences.”[23] Curiosity, awe, and wonder draw scientists into our fields. Our search can never prove anything absolutely true, so we employ precisely developed tools to answer narrowly defined questions about detailed phenomena.  Recent graduate Konstantinos Vlachos provided this explanation of the importance of improvisation in our course:

Many scientists today are afraid of talking to people about their work. It’s not that we don’t want to share our work, it’s that we are afraid to do it because our subjects are oftentimes so elaborate and sometimes so overwhelming to others. Instead, we choose to keep a distance from many people. The improv sessions helped me not to be afraid of my own knowledge and skills.[24]

We have found that discussion of the goals and utility of improvisation is key to its acceptance by undergraduate science students. Interrupting an activity to discuss, re-focus, or analyze our physiological and behavioral responses places it in a familiar context. Importantly, improvisation has become a more featured component of the course; it is started on the first day and is continued throughout the term with increasing expectations of student participation. An unintended consequence of students’ rising comfort with science communication is that student projects have become increasingly multi-media and less traditional.  We have had student projects culminate in videos, art projects, games, music, and even one play script and public reading!

The culminating event of our Senior Experience course is BioFest – a mix of posters, videos, and demonstrations of each student’s senior project. In 30-minute increments, one-quarter of the class presents their work to anyone who walks by. Younger students are encouraged to attend as the room buzzes energetically with friends and colleagues from all disciplines visiting the students’ presentations.  Family members fly in from across the country; mentors from the campus and the community come to see the results.  Posters, as seen at any conference, predominate, but some students bring along research tools or organisms they have investigated (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Poster presenters display confidence and approachability while presenting the science adapted to their audiences. (Image courtesy of Tracy Van Zeeland.)

Some students even stage their projects. A book on what happens after death is displayed against a crime scene tape outlining a body, staging the project’s scientific title, “The breakdown of decomposition: the processes involved as influenced by environmental processes”). Audience participation is encouraged. A website, part of the project “Therapeutic efficacy of spp in treating cancers,” displays the pharmaceutical benefits of Navajo tea, a traditional medicine, as visitors sip tea samples. An amateur winemaker tastes the results of a student’s vintages made from wild yeasts growing on grapes (“Identification and characterization of wild yeasts”).  In the afore-mentioned project, “Surgical protocols and patient selection in intestinal transplantation,” there is action in the real world: a Wikipedia page describing intestinal transplants already has 1500+ hits, and visitors are able to sign up to be organ donors. Lawrence University’s Vice-President of Development speaks with the student who analyzed current and projected climate change on species growing on university property (“Bjorklunden bioclimate envelope models — their practice and utility”).  Athletes watch a video about biofeedback effects on hockey performance (“The role of biofeedback in autogenic training on physiological indices and athletic performance”).  We watch with pride as our students talk with whoever comes by, answering questions and sharing their enthusiasm (Figure 4). In our first years, this was a staid and serious event. In the past three years, the room has erupted in chatter, laughter, and questions.  Students and faculty are disappointed that they can’t possibly visit each student’s presentation in the time allowed.  Parents and administrators attend and are impressed with our students’ enthusiastic and accessible presentations of their work.

We are convinced that improvisation has improved our students’ ability and willingness to communicate their scientific know-how immeasurably. The Senior Experience course in biology has capped students’ undergraduate science training with projects of their own design, and helped them become better science communicators, obtain jobs, and find their professional passions.


Figure 4. Students must be prepared to speak with any audience as they come by. (Image courtesy of Tracy Van Zeeland.)


  1. What Our Students Say

We have solicited reactions to capstone improvisation from a sample of recent Lawrence University graduates.

“You will not always know the knowledge level of your audience and have to be ready to either simplify or elaborate. Additionally, it is hard to know what kinds of questions will be asked after you have finished and because of this you have to be ready to improvise in order to communicate the information to your audience.” Nick Randall, Class of 2013

“When a student or colleague asks a question, and you give a response that does not follow the context of the question, they are not going to understand the answer. Much like improv, you need to stay within the context given.” David Cordie, Class of 2013

“I had such an extreme fear of public speaking that I struggled to raise my hand to answer a professor’s simple question in a small class of people I knew well. When I found out we were doing improv in my science class I was very surprised. The improv techniques and speaking skills I learned in this class pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. Fast forward a few months after graduation to my first presentation in a temporary job. Using the skills I learned in class, I wowed the upper management. Before I knew it, I was well known as a great speaker, solicited by people I barely knew for communication advice, and invited to present at several workshops. It was at one of these talks that my boss and our partners realized they needed to keep me longer than originally planned because of the work I was showcasing and my ability to excite our partners into action. I strongly believe that without the communication skills I learned in class, I would not have gotten the job I have now, and I would have been less successful and had far fewer opportunities to promote my work and engage others. I think this was the most important class I ever took.” Maria De Laundreau, Class of 2013

“Many scientists today are afraid of talking to people about their work. It’s not that we don’t want to share our work, it’s that we are afraid to do it because our subjects are oftentimes so elaborate and sometimes so overwhelming to others that we don’t want to make them uncomfortable. Instead, we choose to keep a distance from many people. The improv sessions helped me not to be afraid of my own knowledge and skills. It helped me to be ready to respond more effectively to the variety of reactions that an audience may have during public speeches. But most importantly it taught me not to be afraid of failure and criticism. After all as a young scientist, I have a lot room for improvement, which makes occasional failure and criticism an inevitable part of my career. Bio 650 showed me how to respond thoughtfully in this criticism, thus reaching my ultimate goal, which is to learn and share effectively how life works!” Konstantinos Vlacho, Class of 2015

“Initially I was horrified to participate in improv, but even after doing it for only a couple weeks, I have noticed my explanatory and communication skills considerably strengthen. I am much more confident in job interviews and feel that I can more easily improvise responses to questions and tailor my explanations to a wide array of audiences. I can now say that I am completely comfortable [with] public speaking (even about topics I am unsure of) and it is all thanks to my biology major.” Terese Swords, Class of 2016

  1. Summary of Oral Communication Activities

Audience (our own invention)

Teaching Improvisation to Scientists with Alan Alda


Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk

Self-Introductions (name & project title)


Play Ball

Bumper Sticker production

12-minute oral scientific presentation of student project & relevant background

Transformation of Objects

What’s Going On?

Science Café


Elizabeth A. De Stasio is the Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and Professor of Biology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.  She earned her PhD in Biology and Medicine at Brown University working in the area of molecular biology and did post-doctoral training in the Department of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is currently collaborating with researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and at Rutgers University to understand which genes are used to make functioning nerve cells. She is devoted to making science accessible to all students through her courses in introductory biology and genetics, and a course for non-majors she calls Biotechnology and Society.

Cindy L. Duckert is a Lecturer in Biology and Senior Experience Facilitator at Lawrence University and the Senior Museum Educator at the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wisconsin.  Her career began as an engineer (California Institute of Technology) building airplanes at Lockheed and making toothpaste tube material more efficiently at American Can Company when she realized that explaining technical things to non-technical people is her forté.  The discovery that interpreting one field of study to another is an unusual skill came as mid-career surprise. She taught K-12 teachers how to do real science in their classrooms with the JASON Project’s online courses and thousands of visitors to the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum what keeps airplanes in the air.

[1] We thank Alan Alda first and foremost for his vision of improving science communication. We thank the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University for providing evidence that improvisation works wonderfully to free the stories and remind us why science intrigued us in the first place and for the concept of distillation that enables students to see that accuracy, brevity, and clarity are not the same as dumbing down science.  We thank Kathy Privatt of the Lawrence University theater faculty for the choice of activities winnowed from another realm.  And we thank our co-teachers of the capstone course for their patience and wisdom; without you the course wouldn’t have evolved as it has: Bart De Stasio, Kimberly Dickson, Alyssa Hakes, Brian Piasecki, Jodi Sedlock, and Nancy Wall.  We thank our students both for their trust in us and for their willingness to grow and add a playful enthusiasm to imbue their science.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books,  1998), 325.

[3] E. A. De Stasio, M. Ansfield, P. Cohen, and T. Spurgin, “Curricular responses to ‘electronically tethered’ students: Individualized learning across the curriculum,” Liberal Education 95, no. 4 (2009): 46-52.

[4] Kelly M. Walsh, “Discovering a Common Language,“ The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine, October 6, 2015.

[5] Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers 3rd ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 2011.

[6] Ibid, 2011.

[7] Beatrice de Gelder, “Towards the Neurobiology of Emotional Body Language.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 (March 2006): 242-49.

[8] School of Journalism, Stony Brook University, Teaching Improvisation to Scientists with Alan Alda (2010) (5:24-8:38 in particular).

[9] Amy Cuddy, Your Body Shapes Who You Are, TEDGlobal, (June 2012)

[10] Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 53.

[11] Ibid., 61-63.

[12] G. Di Pellegrino, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and G. Rizzolatti, “Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study.” Experimental Brain Research, 91 (1992): 176-80.

[13] Marco Del Giudice, Valeria Manera and Christian Keysers, “Programmed to learn? The ontogeny of mirror neurons,” Developmental Science 12, no. 2 (March 2009): 350-63.

[14] Amy Cuddy, Presence (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 179.

[15] Eddie North-Hager, “Botox Impairs Ability to Understand Emotions” (6 June 2011)

[16]Judith Holler and Katie Wilkin. “Co-Speech Gesture Mimicry in the Process of Collaborative Referring During Face-to-Face Dialogue.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior  35, no. 2 (June 2011): 133-53.

[17] Viola Spolin, Improvisation for Theater, 64.

[18] Ibid., 82.

[19] Ibid., 74.

[20] Ibid., 69.

[21] Ibid., 88.

[22] Kelly Walsh, “Discovering a Common Language.”

[23] Personal communication with the authors.

[24] Personal communication with the authors.


“Setting the Stage for Science Communication: Imrpovisation in an Undergraduate Life Science Curriculum” by Cindy L. Duckert and Elizabeth A. De Stasio

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 2 (Spring 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: James Armstrong
Editorial Assistant: Kyueun Kim

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Bill Demastes
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “This In-Between Life: Disability, Trans-Corporeality, and Radioactive Half-Life in D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls” by Bradley Stephenson
  • “Moonwalking with Laurie Anderson: The Implicit Feminism of The End of the Moon” by Vivian Appler
  • iDream: Addressing the Gender Imbalance in STEM through Research-Informed Theatre for Social Change” by Eileen Trauth, Karen Keifer-Boyd and Suzanne Trauth
  • “Setting the Stage for Science Communication: Improvisation in an Undergraduate Life Science Curriculum” by Cindy L. Duckert and Elizabeth A. De Stasio
  • “Playing Sick: Training Actors for High Fidelity Simulated Patient Encounters” by George Pate and Libby Ricardo

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message