Partnering with Science Facilities to Promote Science Communication

through the Performing Arts*

 

Linda Merman ( lmerman@gc.cuny.edu) and Brian Schwartz (bschwartz@gc.cuny.edu), The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

 

Our present National Science Foundation (NSF) grant works with research facilities in the U.S. to develop science communication to the general public through the performing arts. A previous NSF grant supported us in partnering with colleges and universities to do the same. The concept of promoting science communication to the general public through the performing arts has been developed, tested and proven effective at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s series Science & the Arts for more than ten years (http://web.gc.cuny.edu/sciart/).

 

In the current grant we develop ongoing relationships with senior scientists and staff at the following NSF research facilities: the Homestake DUSEL facility in Lead, South Dakota and the LIGO installations in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington for the purpose of developing a model for bringing science and arts activities to primarily rural localities that may have limited numbers institutions of higher education and arts organizations and, in the process, strengthening the relationships between the NSF facilities and the surrounding communities and the greater regions. It should be noted that each facility has a distinct minority community (Homestake – Native American; LIGO Livingston – African American; and, LIGO Hanford – Hispanic) to which we reach out collaboratively to develop science-arts programmes of particular interest to those communities.

 

The Homestake DUSEL (Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab) facility, a unique research endeavour funded by NSF is located in Lead, South Dakota. In collaboration with the University of California Berkeley and the Lawrence Livermore Lab, in four brief years Homestake has gained a reputation as a world-class research facility in the fields of astrophysics and astronomy. In addition, with its “Deep Science for Everyone” Lecture Series, and scholarship and other educational activities, Homestake already reaches out to high schools, colleges and the broader community as part of its commitment to provide science education to the schools and citizens of SD and the region.

 

We have met with faculty, staff and students in the science and arts departments at Black Hills State University, the South Dakota School of Mines, and the Oglala Lakota College. Also, we have identified a number of community arts organizations for collaborative activities: Black Hills Community Theater, Children’s Theater Company of South Dakota, Black Hills Dance Theater, the Black Hills Playhouse at Custer State Park and the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra. We have met and shared materials with all of the above organisations and are working with them on science-theatre collaborations.

 

The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facility, located in two separate installations – Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington – operates as a single laboratory. By means of its research into the nature of gravity, LIGO is an important tool in the fields of physics and astronomy.

 

We already have visited and shared materials with Louisiana State University (LSU), a prime collaborator with LIGO, Southern University, Tulane University and other colleges and community colleges in the region as well as regional academic and community arts organizations (e.g., LA Art & Science Museum, Pennington Planetarium & Space Theater, Baton Rouge Center for the Performing Arts, the Swine Palace of LSU, and the Baton Rouge Little Theater, etc.).

Additionally, we have visited and sent materials to the Director of the LIGO facility in Hanover,

Washington. We are working with LIGO Hanover in creating and supporting new outreach activities in science and arts through new collaborations with Washington State University, Evergreen State College, and other educational institutions. We also met with LIGO and leaders in community arts organisations such as the Mid-Columbia Symphony, the Academy of Children’s Theatre, and the Mid-Columbia Ballet.

 

To initiate the project, we visited each of the sites for approximately five days. On these visits the project Principal Investigator, physicist Brian Schwartz, gave a major public presentation to audiences that included science and arts teachers, students, and the general public. We then held scores of meetings to establish working relationships with scientists and staff at the facilities, discuss with senior personnel the interests and needs of the scientists and community, meet with appropriate leadership in the science and the arts from local educational institutions, and most importantly meet with community leaders and arts organisations.

 

We continue to work with the facilities and local science and arts leadership to develop ideas and help in the development of plans for specific science and arts events at each location. A key component of such joint-local collaboration will be the ‘ownership’ of planned activities by the communities and NSF facilities, rather than the imposition of any plan of activities upon them. In order to get the science-arts programming off to a good start, we have identified some possible initial programming which will set a tone and standard for the local programming: one-person performances that bring to life science personalities such as Richard Feynman, Madame Curie or a one-person show on the trials and tribulations of a woman getting her Mathematics Ph.D. degree.

 

In the area of science and theatre, one series of programming could specialize in targeting a specific audience – young girls. We encourage the presentation, over a period of time, of a series of plays that feature women scientists (or were written by women). These could include Thread of Life by Rita Nachtmann (about crystallographer Rosalind Franklin); Remembering Miss Meitner, by Robert Marc Friedman (about nuclear physicist Lise Meitner); Love and Chemistry by Jean-Noël Fenwick (about the chemist and physicist Marie Curie), and Schrödinger’s Girlfriend by Matthew Wells (about a mythical woman and quantum mechanics). All of these plays have been performed before and were well received by both science and general audiences in the Science & the Arts series at the Graduate Center.

 

We also have identified science-related plays about members of various ethnic groups. These plays include Red Pumps at Ground Zero by the Latino author Allen Davis about neuroscience and the World Trade Centre incident; World Set Free by Bryn Magnus about urban Chicago Black teenagers and their interaction with scientists involved in the construction of the nuclear reactor under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago; and Miss Evers’ Boys by David Feldshuh, which tells the important story about the Tuskegee Experiment on humans and the lives of those who were part of an experiment which they did not understand.

 

Currently we operate a web site for the Science & the Arts programming at the Graduate Center. It contains:

 

• A listing of Science & the Arts performance groups (or individuals) that we have presented during the past ten years. Many of these groups will have recently performed a science related program and should be able to repeat or modify the program for an interested group in their location.

 

• An annotated listing of copyrighted and public domain materials especially for the stage. We have access to an inventory of more than 200 plays which have a STEM theme many of which are unknown to both the science and the arts community.

 

• The web site hosts digital podcasts of many Science & the Arts special events including an international conference we held on science and the performing arts consisting of more than 30 presentations (see www.sciartconference2010.com).

 

In the past decade the marriage of science and the performing arts has emerged as a powerful tool in the national movement to advance knowledge and understanding in both fields. This includes plays such as Copenhagen and Proof, dance performances focused on science themes (e.g., Genome, Ferocious Beauty), and musical-science performances, including opera (e.g., Doctor Atomic). This strategy of the combining science and theater through publicfocused seminars and performances was initiated by us in 2000 with the opening of the play Copenhagen in New York and expanded nationally as the play went on tour.

 

More recently, in 2008, Professor Schwartz collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera in producing and videotaping for the web a series of science symposia in collaboration with the New York premiere of the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic. For the past ten years, we have produced the series Science & the Arts at the CUNY Graduate Center in mid-town New York.(See: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/sciart) The enthusiastic responses of the hundreds who attend each presentation indicate that the performing arts are able to make science accessible, relevant and exciting to new and diverse, non-science audiences in ways that provide both scientific content and significant artistic and entertainment values.

 

Our proof of concept, established over four years of written post-performance surveys by members of the audiences, has demonstrated firmly our appeal to audiences in which a significant fraction are more interested in the arts – dance, theater, music – than in science. Thus, we are reaching beyond the typical audiences who are attracted to NOVA science programmes on television, science museums and science lectures.

 

*Supported in part by the National Science Foundation, grant #1047633

 

This article is based on a presentation at the PCST-12 conference, Florence.

 

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