Sunday, February 12, 2017

Georgia Tech College of Sciences Presents “At Ease: Using Improvisation to Speak to Anyone about your Research"

Written by Ruth Schowalter, M.S. Applied Linguistics & ESL, 
Certified InterPlay Leader

What does a 90-minute InterPlay science communication “sample” workshop with professors look like? Journey with me to Georgia Tech, an urban campus located in Midtown Atlanta to find out!

First of all, the February afternoon right before the 3:00 PM start of the workshop was overcast, with the gray skies releasing tiny shards of cold rain. Fortunately for me, I escaped the unfriendly weather by taking a bright yellow trolley to the Marcus Nanotechnology Building, where the Director of Science Communications, Maureen Rouhi, was administering the final touches to name badges, refreshments, and room arrangements. Tables were removed and chairs lined up around the room’s edges, leaving space for improvisational movement.

One-by-one professors arrived as if in a Harry Potter movie, being teleported from their busy labs and offices through the inclement weather. Hailing from different disciplines such as biomedical engineering, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and atmospheric sciences, these professors had responded to the following invitation written by Maureen Rouhi:
The College of Sciences is hosting a workshop aimed at honing the communication skills of scientists when addressing general audiences. The short interactive workshop will be designed and facilitated by Ruth Schowalter. 

An master English teacher and long-time English instructor at Georgia Tech, Ruth applies movement and improvisational techniques to public speaking, similar to the approach of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University. She has been conducting workshops to help students and professionals improve their effectiveness in addressing various audiences. 

Last October, Ruth conducted a highly successful program—“Using Improvisation To Increase Your Skills in Academic and Professional Speaking”—for graduate students in the Schools of Materials Science and Engineering and of Mechanical Engineering.

Ruth has designed “At Ease: Using Improvisation To Speak About Your Research To Anyone” for the College of Sciences. The workshop is ideal for academic faculty who are keen to explore new ways to communicate by expanding physicality and vocal range, especially when speaking to non-scientists.  

Once the eight curious participants had all arrived, we warmed up with breathing exercises, sharing our names, and movement. The energy was high as they willingly experimented with ways of expressing themselves. What a joy it was to see the earnestness of these researchers as they stretched past their comfort zones to learn new skills!

In the short time we had together, my primary goal was to offer them playful ways to expand physicality and vocal range when explaining their research to people, especially non-scientists. Therefore, after the warm up, I engaged pairs in taking turns to do “short tellings” while experimenting with modulating their voices, i.e., paying attention to volume, speed, and pitch.

In small incremental steps, I asked the participants to increase the use of their “nonverbal” communications or body language. Through a series of “following and leading” exercises, everyone had ample opportunity to play around with exaggerated facial expressions, shoulder movements, hand gestures, and moving while explaining or describing something. The desired outcome of these activities was to broaden participants’ overall awareness of how they could increase their physical presence, enhancing meaning and connection with listeners while decreasing words.

During our short time together, I introduced the InterPlay concepts easy focus (a willingness to relax and trust yourself) and noticing (reflecting on what you are experiencing in body, mind, and emotions). We also did the physical InterPlay activity, “Walk, Stop, Run” as a way to increase physical presence or energy. It also served as a transition between “short telling” exercises, in which participants reduced 250-written-word descriptions of their research to oral summaries, then three sentences, and finally three words.

Before the participants left, they were kind enough to fill out a feedback form. Here is what they reported as beneficial:
  • Great activities that opened my body and mind.
  • Learned to control my voice.
  • Distilling research from 250 words to 3 sentences to 3 words.
  • Speech modulations (volume, speed, pitch).
  • Repeated efforts at explaining the same work.
WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS WITH RUTH SCHOWALTER. Relaxed, motivated, excited, and energized were some of the one-word responses that the science researchers reported at the conclusion of the 90-minute science communication workshop. -Photo by Maureen Rouhi
When asked, “What one word best describes an experience you are having right now?”, these are some of the responses: relaxed, motivation, excitement, fun, and energy.

Just as they had appeared miraculously, these scientists vanished, leaving me with a sense of wonder at what a little bit of improvisation can do!

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Maureen Rouhi for collaborating with me in crafting this workshop. I appreciate her experience with improvisation as a communication tool, sense of fun, and readiness to participate. As always, I am grateful to Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry co-founders of InterPlay for this deeply rewarding improvisational system. And thanks to my husband, Tony Martin, the scientist in my life, who has supported my integration of InterPlay with science communication by inviting me into his Emory classroom and co-creating workshops together.

Other blogposts on how I use InterPlay for Science Communication and Outreach:

November 2016
October 2016

March 2016

November 6, 2014

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