UIC’s Project STAGE helps CPS kids learn science through art, movement

Project STAGE photos

The UIC College of Education, CADA, and CPS collaborate to enhance science education through performance

As 11-year-old Miguel Zamora stood in Maria Rosario’s classroom at the Prieto Math and Science Academy on the Northwest Side of the city, he slid his arms up against his body and then brought them back down repeatedly as if he was pushing something down.

Miguel continued the motion as his classmates, each one wearing a red or white paper sign to represent different kinds of blood cells, walked in a pattern around him. As Miguel increased the speed of his arm movements, the other students also sped up.

As part of Rosario’s science class, the group was dramatizing the heart pushing blood out to the body. The rest of the class watched and then joined in a discussion to analyze their classmates’ dramatization of the circulatory system. This class activity is part of an initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago to use movement or drama to make abstract science ideas more concrete.

The effort, called Project STAGE, is run out of UIC’s department of curriculum and instruction within the College of Education, and the School of Theatre & Music within the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts, or CADA. Project STAGE, which stands for Science Theater for Advancing Generative Engagement, is a UIC partnership with several neighborhood public schools in Chicago, including Prieto Math and Science Academy, 2231 N. Central Ave.; Boone Elementary School, 6710 N. Washtenaw Ave.; John Hay Community Academy, 1018 W. Laramie Ave.; and DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, 6110 N. Fairfield Ave.

Watch: UIC's Project STAGE

An interdisciplinary collaboration across science, education, and performance

Established in 2016, this interdisciplinary collaboration between the College of Education, CADA, and Chicago Public Schools is designed to support elementary and middle school students’ engagement with science concepts and practices through performing arts exploration.

“You’re learning stuff from your teammates and then you’re acting and something comes up from your mind and you’re learning,” said Miguel, adding that the collaborative aspect of learning through movement helps him. “When we read it sometimes we can’t imagine it, but if we act it out our partners can and it helps us understand.”

Focusing on mostly students of color, the program aims to empower diverse, often marginalized students as well as integrate practices from the arts and sciences to creatively respond to society’s challenges and stimulate conversations in their communities. It also helps create and disseminate an arts-enriched science learning model that can be adopted nationwide, impacting who creates science and art and changing public responses to challenges facing humanity, said Maria Varelas, professor of science education in UIC’s department of curriculum and instruction. Varelas co-leads the project along with fellow curriculum and instruction faculty Nathan Phillips and Rebecca Woodard, whose expertise in literacy underscores the importance of supporting students in creating and using various forms of literacy to learn and grow.

Rachelle Tsachor, whose expertise is body movement, is the lead faculty member from CADA. She has been a movement teacher for more than 30 years, and said the project goal is to use “embodied cognition” so students like Miguel will get richer experiences in science learning.

“If we engage children in learning in such a way that they have a good experience and an emotional memory that doing science feels good, that learning feels good, and if we engage their whole body, they will remember having done it as opposed to having had it presented to them,” Tsachor said. “We are getting deeper learning; we’re getting better learning and we have this side benefit of joy.”

Rebecca Kotler, PhD student in science and math education at UIC, has been working regularly with Rosario at Prieto school. She analyzes the efforts of the project as part of her dissertation, which looks at how “embodiments” help students learn. At Prieto, the year-long theme in science has been water, where students also studied water pollutants and their impacts on the environment and the human body.

Looking around Rosario’s classroom as Miguel and the other students worked together, Kotler noted how the students become excited about what they are doing and they enjoy the collaborative aspect, requiring them to talk to each other and achieve consensus on how best to present their scientific ideas.

“We’re interested in identity construction as well, learning to see yourself as someone who does science, somebody who communicates these ideas and someone who can communicate them effectively,” Kotler said. “We’re learning a lot from the drama faculty about how movement actually influences things like emotion, memory and learning.”


Young People's Science Theater

Recently, at Boone Elementary School, dozens of sixth-graders were being led through rehearsals by their teacher, Hannah Natividad to practice for their original play for the school, their parents, and eventually, at a performance at the UIC Theater that took place May 15.

In addition to being a teacher at Boone, Natividad is also earning her PhD in the mathematics and science education at UIC. She and Kotler are project leaders of an offshoot of Project STAGE called the Young People’s Science Theater. It is one of the projects across the U of I System supported by the recent Presidential Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities.

As Natividad’s students have been learning science, they collaborated to come up with a play focusing on how pollution impacts the world, the environment and people. Students wrote the script, performed, and came up with songs, images and props designed to further their narrative, which both portrays the devastating impact of air, water and land pollution on the planet and also advocates for social justice and action.

“I’m a firm believer that if students have the choice and the option to choose how they want to represent scientific concepts, that helps them understand better,” Natividad said.

Sixth-grader Bushra Qazi listened on as she worked with her fellow students on the play in the Boone school auditorium and as Natividad provided instructions. The students also were listening to suggestions from their dance teacher and their drama teacher as they were engaged in dramatizing their scientific message. Bushra said that while science wasn’t her best subject, the unique approach allows students like her to fully understand the topic.

“All people are different and some people just don’t get it when the teacher is explaining this to them so it’s easier for them to sing it or dance it. Looking at it might be better than listening to it because you get to visualize what’s happening,” Bushra said. “It helps kids actually want to learn about science.”

Project STAGE update: project leaders awarded $800,000 from the NSF

Project STAGE continues to build momentum: thanks to its success over the last three years, in July 2019 Maria Varelas, Rebecca Kotler, Rebecca Woodard, Rachelle Tsachor and Nathan C. Phillips received a new $800,000 award from the National Science Foundation. This grant will further support the development and research of Project STAGE and science learning through embodied performances in elementary and middle school.