Unexpected Team-building with Scientists

After successfully working on the iCLEM project together, Amanda and I wanted to try out a bigger project that explored the concepts of synthetic biology. We landed a gig at one of the California Academy of Sciences’s NightLife evenings. But before debuting our final product at the museum, we needed to do a test run. What better audience than a room full of scientists? Okay, we were a bit worried about how we would get a group of scientists dancing… but if they were our toughest audience, then the museumgoers wouldn’t be so difficult.

The Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) was kind enough to provide us with one of their seminar slots. We cleared out the room and began. We had bribed the attendees with an offer of pizza, and many seemed reluctant to abandon their slice and do something participatory. We simply didn’t take “no” for an answer, and asked everyone to stand up. We wanted to make sure everyone participated, so as not to make anyone feel “watched” while they were dancing. We warmed them up as we would any group of dancers, with simple movement cues paired with fun music, and soon everyone was smiling. The participants danced through movement improvisations on the various functions a synthetic biologist might add to a bacterium for a particular project. We then divided the dancers into groups, each group representing a bacterium, and each dancer contributing to their group’s ability to function. One of the best parts of this was watching scientists from different working groups and of different seniority levels collaborate together in playful movement. The eventual enthusiasm with which everyone participated and really danced was heart-warming.

After dancing, we held a discussion to receive feedback. What struck us, as a very revelatory comment was that the IT person described how sometimes he becomes caught up in a problem that is difficult to solve just as scientists do. He saw the dancing as a release to step away from the puzzle, clear his mind, and then re-approach the problem. He also said learning about the science made him rethink going into computer science instead of synthetic biology. That made us realize that dance can have a true and unique effect on attracting an individual to a field. We like applying this same concept to students that often feel “dumb” in science classes but might have a real passion for the subject and need a different outlet to explore the subject.

We had not necessarily conceived of STEM Dance-ology as a team-building activity before our JBEI trial run, but the connections made by the dancing scientists made it clear how effective it is. It may have been particularly successful in this context because it took the expert participants so unexpectedly far out of their comfort zones. We were approaching professionals in the “hard” sciences with what seemed on the surface like a very “soft” arts activity, and the combination turned out to be really delightful.
-Amanda and Shaila

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