Science Learning through Embodied Performances in Elementary and Middle School

This project's approach uses two types of embodied performances: experiential performances that engage learners in using their bodies to physically experience scientific phenomena (e.g., the increase of heart rate during exercise), and dramatic performances where learners act out science ideas (e.g., the sources and impact of air pollution) with gestures, body movement, dances, role-plays, or theater productions. The project is adding to the limited science education literature on the use, value, and impact of embodied performances in science classrooms, and on the brilliance, ingenuity, and science knowledge that all youth, and particularly historically marginalized young people, have and can further develop in urban school classrooms.

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There is a need to develop ways of making scientific ideas and practices more accessible to students, in particular students in elementary grades and from populations underrepresented in STEM disciplines. Learning science involves the construction of scientific knowledge and science identities, both of which can be supported by science instruction that integrates scientific practices with theater and literacy practices. This project's approach uses two types of embodied performances: experiential performances that engage learners in using their bodies to physically experience scientific phenomena (e.g., the increase of heart rate during exercise), and dramatic performances where learners act out science ideas (e.g., the sources and impact of air pollution) with gestures, body movement, dances, role-plays, or theater productions. Body movements, positions, and actions along with language and other modes of representation are employed as critical constituents of meaning making, which offer learners opportunities to understand science core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices by dramatizing them for and with others. This project is adding to the limited science education literature on the use, value, and impact of embodied performances in science classrooms, and on the brilliance, ingenuity, and science knowledge that all youth, and particularly historically marginalized young people, have and can further develop in urban school classrooms.

This project's research focuses on understanding how embodied performances of science concepts and processes can shape classroom science learning, and how their impact is similar and/or different across science topics, elementary and middle school grade levels, and as the school year progresses. It explores the kinds of science ideas students learn, the multimodal literacy practices in which they engage, and the science identities they construct. The research attends to learning for all young people with a specific focus on children from historically marginalized groups in STEM. Using design-based research, the project team (students and teachers in Chicago Public Schools, teaching artists, and researchers) designs embodied performances that are implemented, studied, and revised throughout the project's duration. Ten teachers participate in professional development to learn relevant theater practices (including adaptation, workshopping, and inter- and intra-personal embodiment practices), to strengthen their science understandings, and to learn ways of intertwining both in their teaching. They are subsequently supported by teaching artists through the implementation of various activities in their classrooms, eventually implementing them without any scaffolding. Data sources include fieldnotes during classwork related to embodied performances; written materials, images, sound files, and other digital productions created to enhance, share, expand, and/or support performances; ongoing written student reflections on learning science and the role of embodied performances; regular assessments found in the science curriculum; reflective conversations with student teams about their embodied performances; one-on-one semi-structured interviews with 6 focal students per classroom about science identity development twice in a school year; video of classwork related to embodied performances; and video of science ideas performed by students to school and community audiences. Analyses include structured and focused coding of qualitative data, multimodal discourse analysis, and content analysis. The findings of this research are providing empirical evidence of the value and impact of integrating performing-arts practices into science teaching and learning and the potential of this approach to transform urban science classrooms into spaces where young people from marginalized groups find access to science to engage with it creatively and deeply.

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