Improv teaches chemical engineering REU students valuable skills

Jamie Oberdick
August 28, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Improvisational theater, or improv, is often thought of in the context of unscripted sketch comedy, performed for laughs by nationally known groups such as Chicago-based The Second City and The Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City and Los Angeles. But this summer, students in the Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering’s (ChE) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program discovered that improv has engineering education potential as well.

Undergraduate students participating in the Penn State chemical engineering REU program visited the Penn State University Park campus during the summer to engage in a wide range of chemical engineering research projects and to participate in weekly group activities. One such activity was an improv workshop conducted by Samuel Tanner, assistant professor of literacy education at Penn State Altoona and one of the founders of Happy Valley Improv. Happy Valley Improv is a State College improv company that also offers improv workshops and classes. 

Presenting an improv workshop to chemical engineering students begs the question: What can improv offer to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students? 

“STEM, and I'd add STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) to this, often involves a collaborative, inquiry-based process,” Tanner said. “Improv allows participants to develop their capacity to accept and work with differences, to problem-solve without preconceived ideas and to expect the unexpected. My experience with STEM and STEAM is that it is so much about exploring open-ended problems in collaboration with others. Improv is a way to practice doing this. It also develops skills that lend themselves to working with groups.”

At the workshop, Tanner led the students through various improv activities. These included “Vroom,” a game where people pass around an imaginary ball of energy using verbal and physical cues; improvised monologues, where participants talk for one minute about a topic of their choice; and collaborative storytelling, where participants practice the improv technique “yes, and … ” by telling stories via one person saying a line and the next person accepting that statement as true and expanding on it. Improv techniques such as these are used by businesses and organizations to improve the effectiveness of brainstorming sessions, organizational communications and the free sharing of ideas.  

“This workshop was similar to many of the ones I lead through Happy Valley Improv,” Tanner said. “We design and implement workshops for all sorts of groups. The focus with the ChE students was to highlight intersections between conducting research and doing improv.”

Holding an improv workshop as part of the REU experience was the brainchild of Stephanie Velegol, associate teaching professor of chemical engineering. She was inspired by Branches from the Same Tree, a report published in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report urges the integration of science and engineering with arts and humanities, with a goal of better preparing students for the workforce. 

“I think the students were mixed on the activities — some thought it was great and some thought it was ‘weird,’” Velegol said. “For some students, they were asked to go outside of their comfort zone. But I think that is okay because as researchers, they will be asked to discuss their research in front of a crowd and even within a small group. This will also help them feel more comfortable taking risks.”

One REU participant, Joy Massey, an undergraduate chemical engineering student at Tuskegee University, found multiple benefits from the improv workshop. 

“The session gave me a breather from research and allowed me to interact with people I had not really talked to up until then,” Massey said. “Also, seeing everybody look ‘weird’ and being vulnerable made me feel comfortable looking a little crazy myself while participating, and more willing to take a risk.”

Velegol said that overall, she found the workshop to be a success.

“Personally, I thought the workshop was fun,” Velegol said. “I am thinking about using the ‘yes and … ’ strategy as a teacher in the classroom. When a student asks a question, I can answer with ‘yes, that is a very good question, and … ’ to encourage students to continue expressing their curiosity. I found the workshop helpful enough that I hope we continue to offer them.”

  • Close up of female student with a focus on her hands practicing an improv exercise with other students in the background.

    Chemical engineering REU students practiced improv techniques during an improv workshop on July 16.

    IMAGE: Jamie Oberdick

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Last Updated August 29, 2019