To teach science, Central Michigan instructors are turning to dance

At the front of a lecture hall on Central Michigan University’s Mt. Pleasant campus Biology professor Dr. Wiline Pangle nonchalantly presses a button. Music fills the room. Dancers rush in.

Pangle isn’t helping out in the humanities department. The class is Biology 101 and the dancers are about to perform a carefully choreographed simulation of cell division. They perform it once guerrilla-style to music, none of the biology students know what’s happening, and then again to a lecture that explains their movements and what they represent.

The dancers are all students at CMU too, and the dance is one of a handful of pieces created by Heather Trommer-Beardslee in an effort to forge interdisciplinary connections.

 

Originally Pangle’s idea, Trommer-Beardslee says the goal of the dance is to provide students with a visual representation of the concepts they’re learning and boost understanding in the process.

“Bringing art and science together provides a rich environment for our students, and creates an extended community,” explains Trommer-Beardslee, “We’re using dance to make connections across the campus as well as with the greater community.”

Heather Trommer-Beardslee works with students in the studio
The partnership may have been considered unusual in the past, but today educators at all levels of education are searching for ways to merge soft and hard disciplines in the classroom. That’s thanks to a growing body of evidence suggesting there is a connection between exposure to arts and academic outcomes in science, technology, engineering, and math. And this month, that evidence took one small step for research, but one giant leap for educational equity.

A study published in the academic journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education showed that for some students learning through the arts doesn’t just correlate with better outcomes in science, it may be a direct contributor to higher grades. Following 350 students in sixteen classrooms, researchers found that arts-integrated science instruction increased long-term memory of science knowledge for basic readers and may even result in what they termed a “transfer effect,” where students who have previously experienced science instruction through the arts apply creative problem solving skills and arts competences in order to better understand future science lessons that are taught conventionally. In other words, the cell division dance may have an enduring effect, helping Pangle and Trommer-Beardslee’s students excel in science throughout their college careers and beyond. And that effect may help level the educational playing field for students who don't learn as well through traditional methods such as plain lectures and textbook reading assignments. 

A self-described life-long learner and explorer who was raised in Maine, Trommer-Beardslee says her heart and home is in Mt. Pleasant now. “It’s a great community to engage in the performing arts as it relates to our personal narratives and what we want to explore in terms of our curiosities. I’m really curious about how I can use my passion for dance and structures within dance to communicate across a broad spectrum of content and topics. It’s a rich place to make art.”

In addition to cell division, Trommer Beardslee has worked on dances dealing with hyena behavior, the science behind the regeneration of the Michigan sand dunes, and is currently working on an opera that explores human anatomy and sound. Her students, the University Theatre Dance Company, will be in concert at Bush Theatre April 11-14, 2019. For information and tickets visit the CMU College of Arts & Media website.

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