Recess Blog

Project STAGE Links Theater with Science

By Rob Schroeder
November 9, 2017

What is the latest craze sweeping America’s young people?  If you haven’t seen the science theater, you need to.

Rocks, volcanoes, and more are hitting the stage at Daniel Boone Elementary School in Chicago.  Under the leadership of Hannah Natividad, MEd Science Education ’04 and PhD Mathematics and Science Education student, all 6th grade students produced at the end of the year a musical called “Changing Earth,” documenting geological ideas and their origins.

Natividad’s efforts focus on implementing embodied performances, using body movement and the arts to make science learning both fun and meaningful.

Students at Boone Elementary are standing on stage with large cardboard cut-outs of the Earth's continents.  They are holding them together to represent Pangaea, as part of a dance performance on continental drift.

“I see a big change as far as how students are retaining the information,” Natividad said. “I hear it in conversations between the kids; they are singing the songs and owning the ideas.”

The process started with a small acting out activities in Natividad’s science classrooms, where students were assigned to use any form of the arts to demonstrate their understanding of osmosis.  Natividad noticed that students were focused more on the macro level of the concept rather than the invisible ways in which osmosis works.  She showed her students the video of their group performances and offered them an opportunity to work some more on their productions.  The students demonstrated brilliantly concepts like the permeability of membranes and the movement of water and salt molecules.

With those experiences, the class began work on a school-wide production focused on the Earth’s changing structures, Pangaea, and the continental drift. The result included an interpretive dance of the continents, building on student interest in ballet, dance and jazz.

“Not everyone wanted to act, so there were a lot of students behind the scenes who made the costumes and the background or were running the sound system and picking the music,” Natividad said. “We had a talk and I said, this is yours, not mine, you have to own it.”

For English language learner students, the science theater experience facilitated access to science learning.  Natividad says one student who is a native Spanish-speaking student and did not speak any English had generally sat and watched during science class, with an aid assisting him.

“Osmosis was a hard concept for him but because we were up and moving, and he was one of the water molecules moving around, when we discussed it in class, it blew my mind that he had internalized it,” Natividad said.  “Acting out science ideas grounded his understanding so that communicating with words became less challenging.”

Natividad says coordinating a project of the scope of the end-of-the-year science play required a whole-school approach.  Other teachers on the sixth-grade teaching team joined the effort, and the school’s drama teacher played a significant role.  Natividad also credits the school’s emphasis on the arts, as students experience an entire year of drama, music and dance.

“I learned so much from the kids, from the work they put in and the creativity they showed,” Natividad said. “Through this experience, my students learned about communication and teamwork, giving and taking, leading and following, taking risks, and being accountable.  They learned about individual responsibility that is needed for a successful group effort, and how the group must also support the needs of individuals.  This helps build a genuine learning community, as students become invested in the process and the result.  After we finished they said, ‘Is this it, is it over?’ They were more excited than ever, and they wanted more.”

Natividad is a member of Project STAGE (Science Theater for Advancing Generative Engagement), a collaboration between Chicago Public School teachers and faculty and students in UIC’s Curriculum and Instruction department and the School of Theater and Music.