Perform innovation in science learning

by Isabel Ruiz Mallén

IN3-Open University of Catalonia (UOC)
Ramón y Cajal Research Fellow; PERFORM Coordinator

PERFORM is what happens when performing arts and scientific research are combined for the sake of innovating science education. This collaborative project actively involves secondary school students, teachers and early career researchers in inquiry-based learning about relevant scientific topics through the use of artistic performances at schools. Stand-up comedy, busking theatre and clown based on improvisational theatre are creatively applied as science education methods putting students at the centre of the learning process to engage them in STEM.

PERFORM addresses a ground-breaking science education approach never used before to combine scientific research and performing arts for boosting young people’s interest in science.
Trans-disciplinarity is a key element of such novel approach. It is increasingly recognised by education researchers and practitioners that the boundaries of science and arts offer enormous opportunities for nurturing education with fresh knowledge, ideas and methodologies. It is not surprising that science and arts projects are becoming more and more popular in the field of science education; especially those using performing arts due to its capacity for public engagement, enhancing creativity and communicating abstract concepts from scientific disciplines. In most cases, however, the emphasis is given to the scientific practice itself and misses the opportunity to foreground the creative aspects of collaboration with artists.
As other arts-based practices, performances are particularly useful for describing, exploring or discovering through the integration of rational and emotional dimensions of learning. PERFORM leverages this potential by setting the stage for a sharing of ideas and methodologies between scientists and performers; they learn from each other’s practices to develop performance-based science education methods, going beyond the viewpoints offered by the scientific discipline. By linking science with artistic disciplines we encourage the shift from STEM to STEAM (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; STEAM: STEM+Art) with the goal of capturing creativity and being more engaging.
Early and radical engagement is another keystone of PERFORM innovative potential. Educational projects combining science and performing arts, such as in the case of stand-up comedy, often involve students as the audience of the performance itself and not as developers. But performing arts can go beyond the one-way flow of knowledge. We are designing science education methods based on performing arts to encourage interactivity and collaboration among students, but more importantly, between them, their teachers and scientists, always emphasizing the centrality of the student in the pedagogic process. The development of these methods is informed from the beginning by the students and then co-developed with them, rather than taking on board their feedback at a later stage.
The PERFORM consortium takes this engagement to the highest level and empowers students to create their own performances at school. This has the potential to draw in and engage their existing skills and interests. Indeed, students can establish connections between their learning on scientific concepts at school and their local problems. In contextualising the learning process students’ active thinking and creativity can be enhanced and their interest in science and academic achievement improved.
The potential of the PERFORM approach also lies in addressing the nature of science as a transformative learning process embedded in students’ societal context. Engaging young girls and boys in science requires we shorten the remaining distance between them and the scientific world to humanise students’ view of science. We use the expression ‘humanising science’ to refer to the exploration of educational actions that address the human dimension and values embedded into scientific and technological research. Its aim is to bring STEM closer to young people and their reality, which are intrinsically linked to the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) values. In this way, students are learning on the motivations and personal experiences of scientists behind their scientific practice, unveiling and addressing ethical issues related to science, and reflecting on scientific impacts and applications in real life, as well as power relationships around gender issues. As for researchers and teachers, PERFORM is developing a set of training programmes based on RRI values to support them in improving their skills on engaging students, and on using performing arts at science classroom, respectively.
Last but not least, the effectiveness of this inquiry-based learning process using performing arts in science education is being assessed across four schools in three case studies in France, Spain and the UK. We have got students feedback on their preferences and motivations in science-related activities to design impact assessment indicators, which represents a pioneering experience of this research project.