Dancing Cellulolytic Bacteria: Right and wrong answers in dance and STEM

Shaila first invited me to collaborate with her during her work directing the Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology program, or iCLEM: a summer program that brings low-income, high-potential high school students into the lab to carry out research. I was both delighted and nervous! It was Shaila’s and my first time working together; it was my first time leading creative movement with older teens; and it was my first science-focused dance activity. Shaila and I both knew the students might be resistant to movement. Fortunately, both Shaila and I can be determined when our mission is to make people dance. Our combined enthusiasm, plus the good attitude of the program’s science advisors, teachers, and teaching assistants, made it a very fun event.

I grew up in ballet, a rarified dance discipline with a lot of “right answers” and a long adherence to established tradition. Encountering modern dance, a genre of innovation and questioning, was an exhilarating culture shock for me. Encountering creative movement in a public elementary school setting blew my mind. The dance experience created by large crowds of small children is absurdist, post-modern, hilarious, and deeply beautiful. I wanted to bring a small child’s spirit of free inquiry and humor to our activity with the iCLEM students.

Rather than have these students create set choreography that would illustrate the scientific concepts they had already mastered that summer, I designed a set of exercises that would help them explore the science in an unfamiliar way.   They magnified shapes, imagined moving their bodies through different temperatures and textures, constructed shapes and broke them down, and teamed up to pretend they were bacterial colonies. By the end of the afternoon, everyone was sweaty and smiling. Shaila and I both hope that the science investigators and communicators of tomorrow will be ones like the iCLEM students, who can dive in with both intellectual rigor and imaginative play.

Shaila shares her experience and motivation for the project on the iCLEM Experiences Page.

iCLEM 2014: Dancing Cellulolytic Bacteria

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