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The Feelings in Science

by Darron Davies

This article first appeared in Queensland Science Teacher, Vol 31 No 3, 2003.

Imagine dividing a class of grade four students into groups and asking them to physically represent the workings of a turbojet engine. Each group shows the incoming airstreams, the compression blades, the fuel and air mix igniting in the combustion chamber, the blade turbine and the exhaust gas jet. Each group represents the process differently and the movement piece – almost like a dance – embeds important concepts into the minds of the students.

This is the stuff of drama yet it is also the stuff of physicalising concepts and taking them off the page. It is a well documented means of working actively with difficult concepts and allowing group interaction, and the senses, to help students remember many of the important yet also abstract concepts in science.

Walk around any good bookstore and you will soon realize that much of the really interesting writing that has evolved over the last twenty years is in the area of popular science. Writers – Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki included – have taken what were once perceived to be academic concepts and represented them in creative and interesting ways. Acting as middle agents they have popularized many aspects of science and introduced them to the masses. This really is an extraordinary world so why not use creativity to explore its dimensions!

What really fascinated me about the jet engine movement piece was the fact that I had to tell the students to go to recess. They were completely involved in the process. Each representation became a performance and why not? Isn’t the world of science a creative expression of our world? Should it stay on the paper or should we bring it to life through e.g. movement and drama?

What interests me in using drama and adapting it to the science classroom is the extent to which scientific concepts can be brought to life. First of all it is well documented that physical movement helps embed concepts in the memory. Secondly, movement also brings concepts to life and allows us to look at ideas from new angles. To humanize a cell by interviewing it, by doing a dance piece showing the movement of planets, or by negotiating and standing in a line to represent the stages in the process of digestion, all bring to the classroom a new dynamic that allows us to generate questions.

Science is often seen as the world of facts and drama as a world of imagination and creativity. All the time we set up distances between subject areas without realizing that creativity and imagination are constants in any fields of endeavour. If we want to explore the microscopic side of science we go to textbooks, equipment, or the use of metaphor and analogy to explain difficult ideas. It is the very stuff of metaphor and analogy that encourages us as teachers, and students as active contributors, to delve into the world of creativity. Science is full of many stories of personal creativity and insights where scientists suddenly solved a problem by seeing it through the lens of another perspective. Similarly interviews with scientists – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books are important – reveal only too clearly how creative scientists are.

Type ‘creativity’ and ‘quotes’ into a search engine and you should be able to find lots of quotes that support creativity in science. Whereas the word ‘paradigm shift’ may be used in the analysis of contemporary culture, or art, or business theory, it is important to remember that this term first came through the field of science in the article The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

With a strong background in the arts I am increasingly finding it interesting how much I dip into the sciences. I am reading some Rachel Carson at the moment, have enjoyed recent texts such as Flu by Gina Kolata, Robert Lomas’s biography on Nikola Tesla and the many fascinating Arctic and Antarctic films and lectures I have attended at the Mid Winter Festival held here in Hobart.

Furthermore, some of the best and most imaginative staff development sessions I have run have often connected with science teaching. Whether it was hairdressing teachers taking on the roles of bones in the hands and standing in relation to each other, or science teachers role-playing parts of the human body and interacting by having conversations, there is an endless array of material to play with.

And when I mean ‘play’ that is exactly what I mean. I have constantly been alerted to the extent to which play opens new territories within a classroom. At worst we make lots of noise – not a bad thing at times – at its best we see concepts from new angles and are able to creatively explore ideas within the safety of fun, and a game, rather than a strict academic setting of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘what the teacher wants’.

I can remember setting up a TV show once within a science classroom where a student was interviewed in the role of faeces. It was hilarious yet also educational. We all realized the bad press that this process of digestion got – ‘I don’t like being called poo’ – and this allowed us to explore the reasons behind such negativity, as well as its positive role in our body.

Moreover a creative approach to such learning is improvisational, and besides asking many questions, also allows us to discover new opportunities in learning. I never realized there were so many slang words used to describe digestion. Perhaps some students could go away and explore the language we use to describe digestion and report back.

Any creative endeavour within the classroom can creatively be tied back to the curriculum by a responsive teacher. Even better the connections can be made by the students .By interviewing a volcano and letting it speak, or watching the movement of any entities within a system, we open students to an awareness that is fun and can be tied back to more formal learning at a later date. And this isn’t just the stuff of kids! I have seen senior students exploring quite complicated ideas through means such as interviews and movement.

In the end the divisions between curricula areas is very artificial and quite teacher or school made. I see learning and teaching as a process, and engagement as very much a process of how rather than what. The more we break down the barriers between subject areas and realize that drama, for example, is as much a part of the science classroom as science is of the drama classroom, the greater student learning will become.

In recent times I have been involved in developing a play with a disabilities drama group involving the frog cycle. We have worked through movement, sound and imagery and slowly members have taken on the understanding of this cycle. This has been a creative process using the senses and a non-text based approach to open meaning. All the members have a classified intellectual disability – and I don’t see this as an issue! The issue is how difficult concepts can be grasped, and the challenge in my creativity as a teacher to connect to the world of those who are learning. Similarly I await the opportunity of seeing a friend using drama with a special school here in Hobart. She and the group are exploring Gondwanaland and land mass changes across time.

The best classroom should be based on questions rather than answers. Science poses many fascinating questions and what answers there are – some may label them as just theories – allow us to blow open meaning and learning. Why is that the answer? What if we could talk to a particle? Why is that movement of the jet engine at once very rhythmic yet also devastatingly powerful? By bringing movement and a more humanized approach into the classroom we not only enable ourselves to ask questions but also free ourselves to feel.

I may not know the answer but I feel. To feel is to never be wrong and at least to be curious. Isn’t this, after all, a strong motivation for why people become scientists?


  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Collins.

  • Robert Lomas, 1999, The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, Nikola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Electricity, Headline.

  • Gina Kolota, 1999, Flu, The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it, Pan Books.

  • Dr Karl’s website.

  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

Darron Davies

© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009


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