Motivating Scientist Volunteers to Dance

When planning the Tumor Killing Bacteria activity (first previewed with scientists at the Joint BioEnergy Institute – read more here), we wanted to supplement the dancing with scientist volunteers that could speak more deeply on the subject of synthetic biology for our big debut at the California Academy of Sciences NightLife Series. We realized we needed to practice with the scientist volunteers first. To do so, we thought we could conduct our own experiment: practicing on dancers to represent the public along with our volunteers. This would create a chance for the volunteers to not only get familiar with the activity but also to lend some expertise to the non-scientist dancers.

This created a small group format for us to play with and to create a comfortable learning space for our volunteers. The results were immense! We tested out the activity in several formats and received feedback from the group on what was most effective in learning the scientific material versus the creative movement.

The dance centers around five movements, each representing a function given to a tumor killing bacterium to meet its ultimate goal of destroying tumors. We had brainstormed having a group of five individuals with each person representing a single function, coming together to form a single tumor killing bacterium. This format had worked well with our large crowd of JBEI scientists. The volunteer group, however, pointed out the complexity of assigning each individual a role in a situation where most participants might not understand the science as readily. Our group of volunteers was also several times smaller than the group of JBEI scientists had been, and we observed participants being more inhibited outside the cover of a large group. It became clear that it would be preferable for all individuals to be simultaneously performing the same role: that of a single bacterium with all of the added parts.

Our scientist and dancer volunteers also helped invent the plan of secretly assigning people to play tumors and keeping them hidden until the right moment for the bacteria. That way, once we started moving, we would not have to stop. The smaller the group, the more quickly they lose momentum, confidence, and interest at the tiniest pause in movement.

As at JBEI, the scientists had a good time dancing! There was a bit of hesitation at first, but they really took to creating the dance as a group and had fun – our biggest goal with all of our activities.

We found this session to be more of a volunteer training (and a great way to explore different ideas for ourselves). We hadn’t known this would be necessary, but it turned out to be key to helping the large event be a success. At the California Academy of Sciences, we observed a marked difference between the confidence of the volunteers that participated in this workshop and the more hesitant ones who hadn’t. However, eventually, all of our volunteers danced with us at the NightLife event. When members of the public danced with scientist volunteers at the NightLife event, they seemed to immediately view the scientists as approachable. The dance sparked numerous great conversations about synthetic biology, hopefully contributing to the scientists’ comfort with the public and, as a result, the public’s comfort with the science.

When conducting any future activities where we include scientist volunteers, we will be specifically having volunteer training sessions where all participate in the creative movement activity, give us feedback, and help shape our final product. Plus, then we have even more footage of dancing scientists!
-Amanda and Shaila

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