Honors seminar teaches science skills through improv theater

Elizabeth Robinson

Improv plays a lead role in helping some young scientists communicate.

Last spring semester, College of Natural Sciences lecturer Amira Pollock taught an honors seminar centered around practicing improv theater to help young scientists improve their skills in teamwork, awareness, positivity, spontaneity and adaptation to failure.

The class, called “Improvisation Foundations for the Science Student,” centers around games and activities that engages student participation and teaches basic improv principles, Pollock said. Due to the time-consuming nature of the games, the seminar was offered in six two-hour sessions, as opposed to the typical twelve one-hour classes.

“At the beginning, we watched a few TED Talks (about the benefits of improv) and (Pollock) told us to go to an improv show,” seminar student Vivian Tat said. “Then (in later classes) we would play the (improv) games.”

The games were designed to eliminate hesitation and promote quick thinking, active listening and attention to detail, Pollock said. One of the greatest tools taught by improv is the “yes and” technique, through which one player both accepts a suggestion and adds to it.

“In the brainstorming process (and) in critiquing journal articles, it can become so negative that there’s nothing positive left, and that’s very limiting,” Pollock said. “How can we build on (scientific) ideas instead of just rejecting them all?”

The improv activities also emphasized clear presentational skills, Pollock said. This can help scientists better communicate with the general public as well as other researchers or teammates.

“If you’re talking to a patient and they don’t understand the procedure, sometimes the doctor will explain it to them in the same way again,” Pollock said. “How can you present your ideas as though you’re presenting to a 10 year old and have it be clear as a bell?”

Each improv game has a set of rules but allows students to direct the outcome of the game in imaginative ways, encouraging students to pay close attention to detail while still channeling their creativity, Pollock added. For instance, a game called “alphabet” requires each player to begin a sentence with each successive letter of the alphabet.

“There’s so many activities centered around constraint,” Pollock said. “If you’re being forced to do a game like alphabet … you’re so focused on (following the rules) that you’re not worried anymore about your inner critic. … The more you’re committing to your ideas, the better you can connect to others and think on your feet.”

Pollock added that skills taught in the seminar, such as adapting quickly to change and actively listening to others, can also help participants in their personal lives. Careful listening can facilitate communication with friends and loved ones, and the ability to think quickly is crucial when adapting to unexpected changes, she said.

“When things aren’t going well, we sometimes try to continue as though we can make it work,” Pollock said. “But you have to be able to pivot and try something else.”

Having confidence and ignoring one’s inner critic has also had positive effects on students’ lives, according to Tat. For instance, speaking up in class even when she is uncertain about her suggestions has become much easier.

“I’m still applying improv principles to my life now,” Tat said. “I’m really seeing it right now in my (visual and performing arts) class.”

The seminar concluded with a live graduation improv show put on by the students, Tat said. This event allowed students to exercise their new skills and help expand their comfort zones.

“The difference between a successful science professional and one who’s unsuccessful is how you respond to stress and discomfort,” Pollock said.

Apart from stepping outside of their comfort zones, Tat said the seminar also allowed the students to experience different viewpoints.

“I felt like this seminar was a really good example of stepping outside into a different field and looking at science in a different perspective,” Tat said.