Engaging students with science using performing arts

by Sarah Eagle & Jon James, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

What young people learn in science classrooms doesn’t fit together with drama, arts and languages; drama is for one thing, science for another. True or false? What has performing arts got to offer to science teachers?
Turn back the clock and you’ll find a very long period when the word ‘arts’ meant something more like industry and technology; science, on the other hand, meant reliable, official knowledge, and included the study of meaning, religion, logic, and ethics. How did we get to our own separation between the arts and the sciences?

Well, during the historical period when our grandmothers’ grandmother were born, all across the cities of Europe, there were people engaged in a passion for discovery, observing, documenting, experimenting on the world around them. It was through what they were doing and discussing that the use of science shifted towards meaning as rational enquiry into nature and arts as artistic and literary production. And as natural scientists began to make big advances in energy, astronomy and evolutionary biology, their work became extraordinarily prestigious in society. A period had begun in which there were big, well publicised debates and divisions between the ideas that had been powerful (literary criticism, the skills of debating) and the new ideas that were becoming increasingly powerful – ideas about human progress through understanding such things as evolution, thermodynamics, and economics.
In this struggle for dominance, it was strongly argued that it was important to educate people in science because that was the way the world was going to be. This has, in fact, become a repeated narrative that in its current form is that young people need to be prepared to understand and engage with a scientific world (to be scientifically literate) and that our countries need our young people to become the future scientists and technologists in order to be economically competitive (to be scientists). Technology and innovation are needed for us to solve the world’s problems. The argument has been won.
Or has it? Another side to the debates that began in our grandmothers’ grandmother time  was where science sits in relation to culture. This question bubbled away beneath the surface, bursting out from time to time (e.g. Snow, 1998; Leavis, 2013). Many would still claim that science isn’t thought of as part of our culture; scientists aren’t described by the mainstream media as being part of the main culture. And of the many things are being done to try to encourage young people to develop and maintain their interest in science subjects, one has been to broaden out science teaching away from narrow subject boundaries, allowing teachers to innovate and take collaborative approaches. An approach to the curriculum, termed STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) came into being. Blurred subject boundaries would allow students to develop skills that could be transferred across subjects – communication and problem-solving; and increasing interest in STEM subjects at school would produce more scientists and thereby enhance economic competitiveness.
Two decades later, there is little evidence for this approach making a difference to either agenda; in terms of education, the STEM subjects are rarely taught in integrated ways (Reiss and Holman, 2007) and countries that have adopted a STEM agenda have often seen a DROP in numbers, particularly among underrepresented groups, opting for STEM subjects (Blackley & Howell, 2015). The desire for young people to be active participants in science education has not been met.
What’s the root of the problem? Does the conflation of STEM with economic competitiveness limit the possibilities of science education? And does the way that STEM has been taken up and used have the potential to help young people consider the values and purposes of scientific innovation and technological development?
Technology and mathematics might appear to be the natural allies of science. But it seems that the idea of the overall purpose of science prevents this way of enriching science teaching from fulfilling the vision; and perhaps it’s time to step back into the tricky debate about science and culture. Our hope is that through its work to bring performing arts into science learning, PERFORM can help us begin to explore the value in aligning science education with the arts and humanities. Perhaps it’s this that we should put as a starting point when considering how to encourage young people to be active participants in science education; perhaps it’s an essential part of what we need to do to help future populations to grapple with the global problems and dilemmas that we face.
Blackley, S., & Howell, J. (2015). A STEM Narrative: 15 Years in the Making. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(7).
Leavis, F.R. (2013) The Two Cultures? With Introduction by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press
Reiss, M., & Holman, J. (2007). STEM working together for schools and colleges. 1-8. The Royal Society handbook of research on environmental education. New York: Routledge, 542-548
Snow, C.P. (1998) Two Cultures: With Introduction by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press.