Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Using InterPlay for Science Communication: Improv-ing Evolution

written by Ruth Schowalter, certified InterPlay leader and InterPlay Art & Soul Creativity Coach

“Everyone spread out and find a space in the room. Now, find another space in the room that you want to travel to. Put one foot in front of the other and take your time getting to that spot. Once you arrive at your destination, you may decide to go to somewhere else in the room.”

I delivered these seemingly mysterious directions to a group of university students and professors who attended the collaborative workshop that my scientist husband, Tony Martin, and I gave at the 1st annual Southeastern Evolutionary Perspectives Society (SEEPS) meeting, which was held at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, during Valentine’s weekend 2016. Titled “Improv-ing Your Teaching and Learning of Evolution,” we teased together evolutionary concepts with improvisational forms from InterPlay so that scientists and scientists-in-training might experience “embodying” nuggets of intellectual concepts.
Introducing InterPlay with my collaborator, Tony Martin, Professor of Practice in Environmental Sciences at Emory University (left), and SEEPS organizer, Christopher Lynn, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Evolutionary Studies. Facilitating this workshop with me has temporarily shifted Tony's position in relation to teaching students. "I'm no longer a sage on the stage, but a guide," he described his experience to me. "It's rewarding to see students learning in another way other than just using their minds."
Once the participants had taken incremental steps across the room to various chosen spots and were standing still, I stopped the languid music of “La Vie en Rose,” and asked, “What evolutionary concept might this activity represent?” Tony and I were surprised at the rapid and numerous responses that flew around the room--beak shapes in finches and neck length in tortoises--for instance. Yes! Bingo! Those are examples of the evolutionary concept, Phyletic Gradualism, which explains slow change that happens with species over time.

Incremental Steps help participants embody the evolutionary concept of Phyletic Gradualism.
INCREMENTAL STEPPING. This workshop was so much cooler than I ever expected it to be!," anthropology major Kelly Likos (left) wrote me. "Usually workshops are just a new way to get boring information, but not this one! It was early Sunday morning and we had had very little caffeine but that didn't matter after a few minutes! The workshop quickly turned into a type of team building exercise, and I am so thankful for that! Since the workshop I have been thinking of the ways we learned to listen to each other, the value of range, and using our bodies to learn! I am so thankful to Ruth and Tony for sharing their talents with us!” 
Following the InterPlay activity of taking incremental steps to "embody" Phyletic Gradualism, we engaged the participants in "Walk Stop Run," an InterPlay form that invites everyone to make choices about what their individual bodies want to do: be still (stop), move at a leisurely pace (walk), or accelerate speed (run). Once we stopped the activity, everyone was ready to offer up evolutionary related ideas this InterPlay form might represent, especially after we added "the lean," which allows people to physically lean against one or more other participants. The response "mate selection" was my favorite answer!

Gesturing to the Powerpoint slide (below), Tony connected the "Walk Run Stop" activity with another mode of evolution, "Punctuated Equilibrium," which is when species experience stasis (no change--stop) for long periods of time followed by rapid change (walk/run). For example, this might happen when sea animals like mollusks live, breed, and die for thousands of years, and then are dramatically impacted by sea level change and must adapt or die out.
Walk Stop Run illustrates the evolutionary concept of Punctuated Equilibrium.
In addition to these InterPlay forms, we played around with "Babbling" or short tellings, and a version of "Following and Leading" that offered the participants an opportunity to have a physical experience of flocking, herding, or schooling behavior in animals. 

BABBLING ACTIVITY. In addition to telling their "personal" evolutionary stories, participants were invited to explain a "boring" evolutionary idea with enthusiasm. "I thought the workshop was really fascinating, and a great learning experience that was totally out of the box," commented sophomore anthropology major, Jensen Brown. "Even when I was talking about the most boring evolutionary idea I could think of, I found myself feeling enthusiastic about it because of how the activity was structured. It was a really great idea, and I would be glad to do something like it again!"
REFLECTIONS ON FLOCKING (Following and Leading): "I realized that you (Tony and Ruth) were adapting InterPlay exercises not just to illustrate evolutionary concepts, but to let people live them," wrote Andrew Rindsberg, associate professor of environmental geology and paleontology at the University of West Alabama. "After all, not all evolution is competitive; some aspects are cooperative. The flocking exercise effectively demonstrated humans' natural instinct to work together.

"By placing us close together (but only after getting us to loosen up with bonding experiences first), and encouraging us to follow the leader of the flock, you got us all moving in tandem. The leader of the flock could do anything from raising a hand to rolling over on the floor in the spirit of play. You got us to play together, and that's bonding.

"Since the leader of the flock could change at a moment's notice, everyone had the feeling that they could do anything for the group as leader or follower, and no one was left out. What a fine bonding experience for the attendees of a new-formed society having its first annual conference. I think that those who did not attend the workshop really missed something, and it should be included in subsequent conferences."
CONCLUSION: I would like to conclude this blog post about our first "Improv-ing Evolution" workshop with some NOTICING. In InterPlay, we do stuff and then "notice." First of all, it felt fantastic to see the willingness of these college students, many of them University of Alabama students, to play with such high energy. Next, this was a Sunday morning (Valentine's Day 2016) at 8:30 AM, and other "older" conference participants hovered on the edges of our classroom with coffee in hand, hesitating to enter. There appeared to be interest in our activity, but also some resistance. Yes, fifty minutes was too short a time for our high ambitions. We knew this going into the workshop. Some refining needs to take place.

So for our next "Improv-ing Evolution" workshop, we will have two full hours. We are so excited to be a part of the Atlanta Science Festival! Join Tony Martin and me on Sunday, March 20th, 3:30-5:30 in our town of Decatur, Georgia, at Core Studios. Our workshop is FREE but requires you to register with me at or 404-580-2392.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thanks as always to Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, co-founders of InterPlay. Many thanks to my beloved husband and collaborator, Tony Martin, and his colleague, Andrew Rindsberg. Great appreciation to the student organizers of SEEPS--your enthusiasm and participation in all of the conference was inspirational. And finally, a big shout out and applause to Christopher Lynn and his boundless energy to make this conference happen, as well as his documentation of the entire event. Here is his reflection of our workshop:

"I thought it was wonderful and, like Tyler's presentation using drawing and animation, epitomized our vision for multi-modal integration of science and 'ways of knowing.' Or, in English, I fully appreciate the importance of the epiphanies or clarity that can be achieved in our brains by involving our body. We tend to embody mind/body dualism by simply sitting and to people talk AT us, despite our rhetoric about the body/mind as integrated. It is challenging to get folks to actually explore 'knowing' from an unfamiliar or uncomfortable perspective. I would be curious to see those how those who stood outside the room and waited for the workshop to be over or got up late to avoid rank on Openness to Experience. 
Christopher Lynn
On the other hand, I know many of the students were unsure about it at first but cited it after as one of their favorite events of the meeting and the one that lent them the most insight. It was not as theoretically over their heads as some of the presentations were. I also noticed that, despite my disappointment that attendance was on the low side (as it ultimately was across Sunday), the number was a perfect fit, given the space. If chairs were moved, we certainly could have worked with a larger group, but I know some of the students defer to academic seniority and would have stepped back if there were too many PhDs in the room."

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