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Improv down to a science

Teacher gives student pretend gift.

Dr. Carolyn Kroehler says improvisation is not about being comical or brilliant, but a way to practice a communication style that is personal, direct, spontaneous, and responsive. “I hope you like it,” Kroehler said gleefully, as her student opened a make-believe present and reacted with spontaneous emotion.

“It’s not a creativity contest.”

The important reminder came to students from Dr. Carolyn Kroehler during her Thursday night class called Communicating Science. Offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech and created based on concepts from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the main goal of the course is for science scholars to learn improvisation techniques that lend well to communicating messages and engaging audiences.

When I read a Virginia Tech Spotlight on Innovation article about the class back in August, I knew I wanted to attend. As a communications coordinator within a scientific sector, it’s my job to make scientific content comprehensive and engaging to a wide variety of audiences. Additionally, as a public speaking instructor with a background in theater, I knew this was right up my alley. I was thrilled when Kroehler told me I would not be allowed to merely observe, but would be required to participate! I figured the class would be a trip down memory lane.

Boy, was it! The memories came flooding back with the very first activity. After a few warm-ups, we joined with partners. Kroehler instructed us to sit and simply listen without interjection as our partner told his or her life story for the next few minutes. We then traded places. We had no idea what this activity was leading up to. Listen turned out to be the key instruction. After the exchange of life stories, we joined in a circle. Kroehler then revealed the main event, explaining that we would go around the circle and rehash these life stories. The kicker? We would be telling not our own stories, but those of our partners.

Thank goodness I paid attention! My partner had an enthralling anecdote about how she discovered a passion for nutrition and cancer research. I remembered every part of it and was able to relay the story piece by piece. I thought with certainty that at lease someone may have zoned out during the first phase of the activity, but this wasn’t at all the case. Not only did each person seem to remember every detail, but I noticed that they also took on characteristics of their partner while telling the story, mimicking posture, facial expressions, and voice tone. It was as if partners established the same wavelength throughout this process.

In fact, I had to continuously remind myself this was someone else’s story. I kept imagining each speaker as the main character of the narrative.  Stories were told so convincingly that I was only brought back to reality when someone explained the sentimental meaning behind a tattoo that wasn’t really present on the skin.

When I asked Kroehler her thoughts on why this activity was so successful, she said people tend to remember what is meaningful in a person’s life story, especially if the story details resonate with them on a personal level. In other words, people remember what connects them to others.

Bottom line, even though this class took place at the beginning of the semester and students were still getting to know one another, they really seemed to get each other as a result of this activity.

Students tell narratives from partners' point of view.

Students rehashed narratives from the perspective of a partner, smiling at one another for approval. Impressively, each student nailed all the details of every story!

The attention soon shifted to science. The previous class’s homework assignment involved finding a scientific news story to bring to class. Students within groups discussed chosen articles, chatting about what was or was not so effective in terms of communicating topics pertaining to computer science, physics, space, disease recovery, and so on and so forth. Students were drawn in because of catchy titles, thorough research, and conversational writing. They were turned off by misleading information, sensationalism, and writing that was too technical and not suited for a lay audience. In a discussion that followed, students explored reasons why audiences may be mistrustful of scientific messages.

One reason suggested for scientific skepticism is a socially pervasive aversion to math. Students pointed out that our society is full of ideas about the daunting nature of math as a subject area. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this observation. My mother, a math teacher, has always found it strange how many people openly joke that math is a personal weakness, and yet it’s rare to hear someone make a personal crack about being illiterate. It is almost a cultural cliché (outside of science, technology, engineering, and math circles, of course) to express hatred for numbers.

However, it may be fair to say that Aditya Padaki, a Ph.D. student within the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, sees math differently than most. “I see math as a language that is used to explain phenomena that happens around us,” he said.

Padaki is hopeful that if math can be reframed in this way, with formulas presented as illustrations of logic behind a story, it may come to be known as a beautiful language that people are eager to learn, just as they are eager to learn French or German. Perhaps Padaki will be the one to communicate this perception to the masses, thus enhancing math’s reputation.

The group mentioned that another possible reason for scientific resistance stems from the age of the Internet and Netflix. People read a trending article online or watch one documentary and suddenly feel a sense of personal expertise, students explained.

Laura Harthan, a Ph.D. student within the Department of Dairy Science, has observed this firsthand and suspects that marketing efforts of PETA, Chipotle, and Panera, among some other brands and organizations, may have influenced modern attitudes toward nutrition and agriculture. One of the reasons she enrolled in the course was to learn how to communicate with lay people outside her field.

Padaki chose to add the course to his semester schedule for similar reasons, wanting to learn how to effectively communicate with those in organizational and government positions who are responsible for giving the go-ahead for important projects. Unless regulators understand these benefits, Padaki said, new technologies cannot take off.

During her Thursday night class, Kroehler encourages students to communicate in a way that is more personal, direct, spontaneous, and responsive—points of emphasis within the course. But quick reactions may be easier said than done when students feel a bit, well, silly. The lighthearted improv activities are designed to loosen up participants, which Kroehler said may be a challenge for graduate students who are used to talking about science in a way that is planned and rehearsed due to the serious nature of their work.

“I think when people think of improvisation, they immediately think about comedy club and how brilliant and wonderful these people who do improv are, but that’s not what the class is about at all,” Kroehler said. “The class is about helping people connect with others and be more responsive.”

Students learn to communicate effectively through improvisation activities.

The Alan Alda Center mission is “to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public.”

Whether going into fields of medicine, technology, agriculture, or any other science, students realize the challenge ahead of them in terms of communicating to professional superiors and the general public. But they are taking the first step, which is diving in with an open mind and a cooperative attitude. Indeed, when it comes to improv, experts seem to agree the best strategy involves taking on Nike’s “just do it” mentality.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s cool,” Kroehler said. “Just let it evolve. Just do something, and don’t worry about whether it’s funny or brilliant.”

Interested in more information about Alan Alda’s influence at Virginia Tech? Check out the other articles below.

Science graduate students learn how to explain their work to a general audience at Alan Alda workshop

Communicating Science- What we learned from the Alan Alda Communicating Science Workshop

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