Improvisation at Work in Play: Building Collaborative Communication Among Scientists

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Grand Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Raquell Holmes , Improvscience, Boston, MA
Over a thousand graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, administrators and lab directors have participated in improvisational theater based sessions led by Dr. Holmes. At conferences, departmental events or short courses, these scientists enter the room with curiosity, skepticism and varying degrees of self-protection. After one to three hours of conversation and games that have participants on their feet, laughing, and creatively completing simple and playful tasks together, they leave having built new relationships with the creative process, with each other, and a new understanding of what scientific culture can be.

Improvisational ensembles willingly go into unknown areas, collaboratively discover next steps, and risk making mistakes together. These traits are increasingly recognized as central components of creative, inclusive organizations, teaching and innovation. Learning to work together as improvisational ensembles that flexibly work with constraints informs participants’ interactions and their approach to science.  From the first workshop at Harvard Medical School’s Systems Biology Department and those that followed, scientists were eager for opportunities to build community and stretch their collaborative, creative capacities.

Holmes created improvscience to meet the newly identified need. For herself, Holmes discovered the benefits of performance and improvisation through the East Side Institute and All Stars Project, independently funded grassroots organizations focused on community and youth development. Their practice of collective performance and play that re-initiates human development have shaped Holmes approach to building more open, inclusive and innovative scientific communities.

Through her National Science Foundation project Improvisational Theater for Computing Scientists, Holmes met STEM professionals nation-wide who also see collaborative groups (ensembles) as important for creative learning, developing scientists, and communication. These scientists create social contexts in which they, their colleagues, students and staff improvise new scientific, cultural performances. A cross-section of their work is visible in the abstracts of the Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) meeting convened in 2012 at University of Connecticut Health Center. In this talk, Holmes shares the voices and projects of this growing community of STEM professionals and her work as a pioneer of the improv(e) science community that is innovating the performance of science.