These Science Students Learn to Think on Their Feet

28:59 minutes

Science students at New York’s Stony Brook University have an unusual offering on the class roster: “JRN 503: Improvisation for Scientists.” The course isn’t aimed at turning scientists into standup stars. Instead, the students practice improv games geared towards helping young scientists read and understand their audience, in hopes that they’ll become better communicators along the way. Writer and actor Alan Alda, who co-founded the school’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the improv program director, review a few of the games and their intended effects. (Alda even invites Ira to play one on the air.)

Segment Guests

Alan Alda

Alan Alda is an actor and writer. He’s also the host of the Clear + Vivid podcast, and founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Valeri Lantz-Gefroh

Valeri Lantz-Gefroh is the Improvisation Program Director at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

When you hear that word improv, you probably think comedy, right? Night at the Improv or Saturday Night Live, but what about using the fundamentals of improv to talk about science. To talk about stuff that’s not guaranteed to make the audience go wild.

You know, crowd pleasers like thermodynamics, and particle physics, and gene mutation rates. Well, this idea of mixing improv and science was the brainchild of one of my next guests, a science obsessed kid who ended up going into Hollywood, instead.

You know him as Alan Alda, actor and writer and board member of the World Science Festival. He’s also co-founder and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Welcome back, Alan. Always good to see you.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Also joining us today is Valerie Lantz-Gefroh, she’s the improvisation program director at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Welcome to Science Friday.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: We’re not going to be taking your calls today, but you can comment on Twitter @scifri or at sciencefriday.com. Alan, I want to start by asking you about your experience with improv. Because you worked with a Viola Spolin, the great improv teacher who founded the Young Actors Company in Los Angeles and her son Paul Sills. What were her workshops like? What kind of stuff did you learn there?

ALAN ALDA: She has– it must have been about 70 years ago that she first worked with children and wrote a book about it called Improvisation for the Theater. And, actually I worked with mostly Paul Sills, her son. He’s the guy who started Second City.

But the workshops we did had nothing to do with comedy, they were really this basic form of improvising that Viola invented, which I found transformed me as an actor and as a person. And everybody I know who was done it had the same experience. You get opened up, you become available to the other people you’re working with.

You have to because that’s the nature of the exercises, and mostly games, that you play. And when I was doing Scientific American Frontiers, the program on PBS where I must’ve interviewed about 700 scientists, I realized that we were actually doing little improvisational conversations.

That’s why they were so lively and interesting, because they weren’t standard questions and answers. So that conversational approach made me think, if there’s nobody standing there next to the scientist drawing the science out of them in a more human way, what would help the scientists do that, and that I felt was learning improvisation.

But this basic kind of improv, not where you try to turn the scientist into a comedian or an actor, or make him quick on his feet. It’s the connection. It’s the relating that comes out of the improv that’s so valuable.

Because then when you turn to an audience, you relate to them in that same personal way.

IRA FLATOW: But is there any value in humor though, for the scientist–

ALAN ALDA: Oh sure, sure.

IRA FLATOW: — once they learn this.

ALAN ALDA: The thing is, it’s not a jokey kind of humor. It’s the pleasure of spontaneity. So that if something occurs to you in that split second, it’s free to come out. You trust it, you trust yourself. And the audience is delighted, I think, even more by the spontaneity than by the jokey element that would be coming out if it weren’t as spontaneous.

IRA FLATOW: Valerie, you direct the improv program at Stony Brook, so give us a little idea, better idea, of what scientists learn from the improv world. What do they take home? Alan as started us off on that.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Yeah, right. A lot of it, like Alan says, is just about learning how to listen and be available to whatever’s right in front of you. So that you may come in with a really strong plan of, this is the thing I’m going to say, or this is the talk that I’m going to give. And the tool that they learn in improv is that if it’s not working that they need to be aware of the fact that it’s not working and able to make an adjustment on their feet.

Not feel like they failed, not feel like, OK, well I’m just going to try to get this over with, but actually do something it in the moment and be able to connect with the people that are listening to them. So the games that we play are a lot about just listening, availability, and being able to make spontaneous adjustments. And also bring their own passion to the moment, so that they’re coming from a place of excitement in their own work.

IRA FLATOW: So they can react on their feet.


ALAN ALDA: And she– the people they’re talking to, or the people they’re writing for, who they don’t actually see, should be able to figure out what they’re going through as they communicate with them. So the focus is on the person listening, not on what you have to tell them.

Because what you had to tell them really doesn’t matter if they don’t get it.

IRA FLATOW: Our producer, Christopher Intagliata went out to visit the Improv for Scientists class at Stony Brook a few weeks ago. One of the things he heard about was the protractor chair.

STUDENT 1: We’re here to tell you about our product. It’s the chair protractor. When you’re taking a math test, sometimes you’re just like, I don’t know what that angle is. So you roll up your chair and put the piece of paper under it, it’ll measure the angle for you. But wait, there’s more.

STUDENT 2: It doesn’t only help you on your test, but helps you sit down. So no matter the size of your derriere, you’ll be able to take a seat on this protractor chair. But wait, there’s more.

STUDENT 3: I can see all you people with the bad posture, but the protractor chair will fix that for you, because you’ll be sitting at 90 degree angles. But wait, there’s more.

IRA FLATOW: For a second, I thought I was listening to Ron Popeil do a Vegematic. You know, and if you act now. Is that the point of that?

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: It’s set up that way, yeah. It’s a game called Beaker Bagel. And the idea is that the students will brainstorm about something from their daily work life that they often use. And they’ll write down that object, and then something that they touched this morning, an object that they use. And they’ll work in teams and choose an object from each pile.

And the instruction is as a team, they have one minute to think about how they would pitch this if it was one item for a television audience.

ALAN ALDA: So two disparate words are combined on the spot. They don’t expect those words to be put together.


ALAN ALDA: And then they have to think of a product that represents those two words.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: And the directive is this that they have to think about helping us understand what it is, what it does, and why it’s important to our everyday life. And what it does is it really brings them out of their shells. Even shy students kind of go to outrageous places in this.

But the takeaway is that science is, to some degree, the same kind of an abstraction. And the listener needs to know what it is, what it does, and why we should care about that.

IRA FLATOW: And I’m sure this is something you faced when you were hosting Scientific American Frontiers. It’s something we face here of Science Friday, and that is how do you get the real human to come out?

ALAN ALDA: And that’s exactly what this does. Excuse me. This gives the person playing the games the opportunity to emerge from the facade that sometimes is required in the professional world. With your actual personal self, when that’s freed, your own sense of humor comes out, although that’s not the primary objective. But most of all this personal tone, a personal tone of voice, a personal regard, your gaze at the people you’re looking at, is genuine, direct.

You’re not looking at them in general, you’re reading their entire face. You’re looking into their eyes. You’re noticing every line. Notice your little half smile now. If I weren’t trained in this, I might take it for granted that whatever’s happening on your face is not necessarily connected to what’s going on in your head.

IRA FLATOW: But part of acting is the reacting, right?

ALAN ALDA: That’s it.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: It’s the most part probably.

ALAN ALDA: It becomes interactive that way.

IRA FLATOW: Val, another improv exercise our producer heard was something called a rant. Here’s a Rachel Samson, a physics major at Stony Brook.

RACHEL SAMSON: So one thing that really, really bothers me is my little brother. He’s 16 years old, and he is so entitled right now. My mom drives him to school every day, and he’ll come down five minutes late. My mom has to get to work on time and everything, and he’ll come down yelling at her, why were you honking at me? Like, he’s just so angry at her.

And he’ll get in the car, and he’ll just yell at her, and yell at her, and she’s doing him a favor, but he doesn’t realize that.

IRA FLATOW: And Val, the rant helps to do what? Free your mind?

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Exactly. Got to get rid of all this stress. The rant is only the first part of the exercise. The second part is when you have to turn the rant around and describe the person in positive terms. And so, maybe Rachel’s partner would introduce her to the audience in a different way than what they had heard from the rant.

RACHEL’S PARTNER: So this is Rachel, and she’s really passionate about her little brother. She understands the nuance of how your personality plays a role into who you’re going to be in this world, and what it takes to succeed. And the fact that you need to be able to motivate yourself, and that you need to be able to get up every day and take accountability for your own actions.

She really cares about her brother being able to do the thing that he needs to do to succeed.

IRA FLATOW: So how could you use this? If you’re a scientist and you’re faced in this– what kind of situation could use this in?

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Well, this is a really important exercise for both scientists and medical professionals. And we teach a lot of medical students, as well. There’s often a big rant that’s coming at the scientist from the public that has to do with misunderstanding or confusion. And one of two things happens to us when we hear a rant.

Either we become defensive, or we shut down. And neither one of those can really help the conversation go forward. But if you can think of deeper and really look underneath the rant, what it is that’s positive that’s driving that person, that can really help you unlock some common ground that you may have with the person on the opposite side, and help you move the conversation forward.

ALAN ALDA: And I noticed something very interesting when I was listening to the rant just now. Often these exercises do more than one thing. And one of the extra things I think that I heard happening in that rant was an opening up with energy and affect about what she cared about.

The ranta gave her the permissions to be emotional, to be really present with what she had to say. And when that’s applied to their science, when they tell you about what at the present moment is probably the most important thing in their life, they can tell you with the same kind of animation that the rant freed them to do.

IRA FLATOW: Well I have to become animated and emotional because we have to take a break. When we come back, we’re going to talk a lot more about science and improv with Alan Alda and Valerie Lantz-Gefroh to stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about teaching impromptu to scientists and have to a ditch the jargon with my guests Alan Alda, actor and board member of the World Science Festival. He is also co-founder and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University out there on Long Island.

Valerie Lantz-Gefroh is the improvisation program director at the Alan Alda Center out there at Stony Brook. Val, during the break you mentioned you had a real life example about how the rant exercise works.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: We do a lot of workshops around the country, and we did this rant exercise at a workshop that we had at the University of Maine. And after the workshop, a few of the scientists were getting ready to go to a community meeting that was sort of an ongoing monthly meeting that they had with a group of fisherman.

And the meeting was often very contentious with the fishermen feeling like the scientists were against them, and the scientists feeling like they can’t get anywhere with the fishermen. And so they did this rant exercise and I thought, why don’t we just try this. We have absolutely nothing to lose. Let’s try and just see if we can hear beneath the rant.

And they came back the following day to the next improv workshop and they said it was really amazing what happened because they said they still didn’t reach any consensus in the meeting. But what happened for the first time is that they left the meeting talking to each other. And that had never happened before. And it gave them a lot of hope for where the future could go if they had found some common ground and that they at least realized that they had some respect for each other and actually liked each other.

So the long standing, or long distance, implications of these exercises can be very surprised.

IRA FLATOW: It’s true that these days scientists are so involved in their tiny little communities but they never talk to each other.

ALAN ALDA: That’s one of things that our work is changing. We notice that when we bring people together from different disciplines, they would learn about one another’s work for the same time. Sometimes people within the same discipline learn about one another’s work for the same time, and leave the room talking in a kind of collaborative way.

IRA FLATOW: Alan, do you sort of reinvent these exercises with science communication in mind? Or are you just taking what you’ve learned and just giving them–

ALAN ALDA: No we adapted. We adapted. And I remember when Val and I first began working together, when we did a series of improv sessions with students at Stony Brook University. I took a game that Viola Spolin called Who Am I where you come in and you don’t know– you come into a room and a person is sitting in the chair, and the person doesn’t know who they are in relation to you.

And only by the way you relate to them do they find out who they are. So I thought wouldn’t, it be fun to have the scientists come in and explain his or her work in the lab in such a way that the person in the chair finds out that she’s his mistress, she’s his wayward daughter, she’s his doctor who’s performed badly in an operation. Some emotionally charged relationship that can come out not by giving hints, not an intellectual puzzle game, but by the way they relate to them.

By the tone of voice, by the words they choose to talk about their work. So what happens is, you learn, as in many of these games, you are transformed in a number of ways. One way is you realize there are many ways to talk about your work, not just this one official way that you wrote in the research paper.

The other thing you learn is you actually can communicate someone. You communicate something to someone without words. I can let you know who you are without giving you hints, but just by my behavior. By my body language, my tone of voice. That’s one of the most important things you can learn in communication.

IRA FLATOW: Val, do students ever come back and say, hey you know, I had this situation where this came in so handy, the stuff that we learned here.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Yeah I actually had a pretty profound moment with a student this past year. He was a medical student. And we do an exercise called the Mirror Exercise where one person is leading a physical movement and the other person has to mirror it.

And the exercise begins with a lot of self consciousness. And what happens through the course of the exercise and some side coaching, is that they realize that they need to slow down and be more simple and empathetic for what the follower is going through. So the student came back to me to talk to me after class, and he is now a third year medical student and going to see patients.

And he had an experience, his first experience, of having to break bad news. And it was to a woman whose cancer had metastasized, and the news was that she had about two weeks left to live. And he was terrified going into this conversation because it was daunting and very emotional. And so he went in with the internist, and the internist told her what was going on and there was no reaction at all.

And he said, we were getting ready to leave the room, then I thought, I just don’t think she got it. I don’t think she knows what’s happening. And so he asked permission to stay and sit with her, and talk to her a little bit more. And he was given permission. And he said, I sat down with her and we held hands. And he said, I told her in the simplest possible way what was happening.

I didn’t use any three syllable words, I didn’t use the word metastasis, I didn’t use the word prognosis, it just tried to be simple and slow, because I knew that there was a pacing to the way that you could hear this information. And he said, for the first time, the woman started to cry. And when she cried it made him cry.

And then when he cried, she had a question. And he said it was really the perfect mirror where he began the leadership in a slow way so she could stay with him. And then she took over the leadership of the mirror by asking questions. And he said, ultimately what came out of this is that it was the perfect mirror where both of them we’re leading and both of them were following. And he said, what I felt happened was that I was able to help her understand how to understand the end of her life.

And she was able to help me understand how to be a better doctor.

IRA FLATOW: And it all stemmed out of the training that he may have gotten about listening.


IRA FLATOW: And paying attention to what–

ALAN ALDA: And specifically this mirror exercise, which has this mysterious effect of getting you to merge with the other person. In many ways your brains get synced up. An example, we can’t we can do an example of it on the radio, but we do one that’s verbal. You want to do it with me?


ALAN ALDA: You be mt mirror, and you say everything I’m saying at exactly the same moment I say it. You’re not an echo, you’re a mirror. So here’s what I’m going to tell you. You look wonderful today. Now you lead.

IRA FLATOW: That it was a very interesting conversation. Thank you for that compliment. And we do that, and you do that exercise.

ALAN ALDA: We do that exercise, and then we tell them. And both of you are leading. There’s no follower. You’re leading at the same time. Then that sounds impossible, but it actually is possible. And the thrill when you’re both so tuned into each other, that if a person came into the room they would know who was leaving. That’s a wonderful feel.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. We asked a few of the students at Stony Brook for tips for scientists who want to do a better job talking about their work, or even just listeners who want to be better communicators. And this is what they said.

KAREEM IBRAHIM: My name’s Kareem Ibrahim and I’m studying bio chem. I think definitely when it comes to science, because there’s the idea of factual accuracy or inaccuracy and there’s so much more scrutiny placed on you when you’re giving a talk about something that’s scientific. But I think at the same time, a lot of what makes up the speech, isn’t so much the content, but the method by which you get the content across in a manner that is understandable to your audience.

And so I think it’s pretty universal, the approach toward connecting to the audience. I think that this class gives us a setting where we can practice those approaches, and be able to do so in an effective way.

IRA FLATOW: Use real everyday language? What a concept.


ALAN ALDA: What a concept. Exactly. We find that scientists tell us that– these are senior scientists very often– after going through this training with us, they get so used to thinking in basic language and facing the concepts without over intellectualizing them. But they have a greater understanding of their own work. And that’s a wonderful thing. They can actually make more progress in their work because they see it in a fresher way.

One scientist told me he doesn’t face the data in a way where he tells the data something, he lets the data talk to him.

IRA FLATOW: You know, that’s what they say. You really don’t know if you understand something until you can explain it in plain English.

ALAN ALDA: Many great scientists have said that. If you can’t explain it to a child, you probably don’t understand so well yourself.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Another thing that’s surprising is that our medical students have told us that they’re actually learning material easier because as it’s being given to them, they’re starting to distill it in their own minds and think, if I was to say this in plain language, what would it be?

And it’s helping it to stick with them longer.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah that’s a great advantage.

IRA FLATOW: We have one more piece of advice from a student, from Kristen Federici.

KRISTEN FEDERICI: I’m Kristin and I’m a bio major. I’d say break it down. Definitely take your work and think about who you’re speaking to. It doesn’t really matter if you’re speaking to other scientists. They won’t mind hearing every day words. They don’t need to hear the big ticket items, you know.

So I’d say definitely break it down into smaller steps, and then build it up to the big picture.

PRODUCER: And what about the thinking on your feet aspect, which you guys are amazing at just making up stuff. How does that apply to when you’re talking about something real that has to be factual?

KRISTEN FEDERICI: Well, I think if you can come up with some sort of analogy for the audience to understand, even if it’s one that you don’t think people do every single day, it’ll definitely lighten the mood a little bit, and help people connect with you. And that I feel like is definitely helpful with thinking on your feet.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because scientists need to think on their feet more than ever now, especially when they go to Congress. Try to talk science to the congresspeople. You touched briefly on how scientists need to be able to speak in plain language, and that’s a natural segue way to your new Flame Challenge. Let’s talk about your flame challenge.

ALAN ALDA: We just began the Flame Challenge for this year, and every year kids, 11-year-old kids, suggest the questions. And this year the question that came to the top was, what is sound?

IRA FLATOW: What is sound?

ALAN ALDA: Yeah, and scientists all around the world, we’re hoping, will send in their explanations of what is sound. They have until mid January to do that. And the trick is– the thing that makes it really an interesting challenge, I think, is that they’re not going to be tested on what they know, they’re going to be tested on how well they can communicate what they know.

And a bright scientist is not going to have trouble getting the basics of sound down, but then how do you communicate that to an 11-year-old in an engaging way, but not in a silly way, but one that captures their attention and actually teaches them something? Because that’s what the kids want. And the kids are going to be the judges of the contest.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Alan Alda about the new Flame Challenge, which is about sound. Do you think any of the kids in your course could come back now and try to explain things better?

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Yeah, I mean that would be a winning testimonial, wouldn’t it? What I understand is that some grad programs are having their kids do this as a project for grad. School so that’s an interesting idea.

ALAN ALDA: I’d love to see scientists take on this challenge. Because what it does is I think you realize how hard it is to do this and it’s intriguing to see if you can find a way to incorporate your knowledge of sound into this communication process.

IRA FLATOW: And how did sound get chosen as the topic?

ALAN ALDA: A number of kids asked that question, or a question that implied it, and then when we sorted through it and we were looking at the top– correct me if I’m wrong on this, Val– I think we were looking at the top suggestions for ones that would bring out the most imaginative responses from the scientists, would you say?

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Right, and a broad range of scientists would be able to answer the question.

IRA FLATOW: And you can, going over the ground rules again, you can use any kind of technique? What are you’ looking for, tell us.

ALAN ALDA: We have two categories. One is video, a short video, or a written entry. Those two ways of explaining it are what we’re asking for. And we get some really wonderful, elaborate, interesting videos. Sometimes very simple ones. I think the one last year, or the year before,


ALAN ALDA: Two years ago, was just a guy talking to the camera, but he was very engaging and very accurate about what he says. And all of these entries, by the way, are vetted for accuracy by a panel of scientists before they go to the kids for judging.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I’ve seen a few of those videos, the ones that are being judged. And sometimes it’s amazing how effective just someone in front– this is how kids operate now, right? They’re doing seflies and all kinds of things. And so they– maybe expect to see more of these kinds of videos.

VALERIE LANTZ-GEFROH: Learning on YouTube, there’s a lot of that kind of video work.

ALAN ALDA: One of the things we didn’t expect to happen with this contest, and this is the fourth year of the contest, is what a wonderful learning experience it’s turned out to be for the kids. One class of kids said I wish we could learn everything this way. Because what happens is they have to become sort of expert in the details of the question.

And what the best answer to the question is, so they can judge who gave the best pantry. So each class will get a packet of five entries and they discuss them for as long as the teacher wants to make that part of the learning process. So they get to be very good at figuring out what the most correct answer is, and then they’re discussions together is an added level of education.

They learn to work together, they learn to use critical thinking. It’s a wonderful learning experience for them, and we didn’t expect that.

IRA FLATOW: Well we’ll see what comes out this year. Thank you. We have the link up on our website. And go to your website if you want to enter.

ALAN ALDA: You know, the winner of our first contest which, was what Is a flame? Only knew about this contest because of Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: I didn’t want to bring that up, but I’m glad you did. Thank you for that. Alan Alda, actor, writer, board member of the World Science Festival. Also co-founder and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. And Valerie Lantz-Gefroh is the improvisation program director at that Center for Communicating Science out there on Long Island. Thank you both.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you.


IRA FLATOW: It’s always a pleasure having you come in. And happy holidays to you.

ALAN ALDA: Same to you.


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About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

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