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Yes, and: a Professor’s Mission to Combine Science and Improv

Morgan Lindstead | March 7th, 2024

When Dr. Thomas Clements, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences and member of Improv Science Theater 4000 Comedy Group, announced that he would be teaching a class on improv in scientific communication, he certainly turned some heads. It is no secret that the professor and researcher is an avid fan of improv comedy, and the announcement of this new class drew in a lot of excited students. This unique class will teach students valuable skills that help both STEM and non-STEM students alike. 

Meeting Others Where They’re At

Learning to talk about and convey scientific information is critical for students wishing to pursue a STEM career. Dr. Clements explained that “scientists are great at talking at people, but improv helps teach students how to talk with their audience and convey information in a way that others can understand and may potentially remember better.” Specifically, Dr. Clements emphasized the importance of “meeting others where they’re at.” In improv, this means identifying what you need to do in order to connect better with your audience, as well as tailor your ideas to their level of understanding. “When I’m at a conference, I can go into as much detail as is asked of me, but I wouldn’t provide this same level of detail to a college class, and even less detail to a group of middle school students.” When scientists don’t know or choose not to cater their presentations to their audiences, they are furthering scientific elitism, which makes it more difficult to relate to others and share information. Improv helps to ease the effect of scientific elitism,  creating a more inclusive environment where scientific knowledge is more approachable and engaging for all.

Applications Beyond STEM

 “These skills are applicable in all fields, even everyday life,” Dr. Clements explains. Law infamously uses strong language that is only understood by other individuals who have studied law. If this concept of “meeting others where they are at” were applied, law would be more digestible for a larger audience looking to use this information or understand what they can and cannot do. In finance and economics, complex models and jargon are similarly used, and this can make it difficult for ordinary people to budget their own finances without hiring outside help. Even in the artistic community, complex jargon about different styles and use of techniques can make it difficult for ordinary individuals to join conversations or test their own artistic abilities. Thus, the concept that Dr. Clements is teaching his students is crucial for all fields, not just STEM.

Beyond the stage, Dr. Clements talked about how improv has helped him connect better with his students: “When a student gives a wrong answer, instead of saying they’re wrong and moving on, I try to meet them where they are at, retrace their steps, and help correct the original misunderstanding that led to that answer.” Dr. Clements believes that this class will provide his students with greater confidence in public speaking and strong foundations for future learning by helping them listen and react as their true selves without putting on a persona. Dr. Clements’ students begin the course by going through basic improv training. Notably, he is helping his students to identify how to use improv to convey scientific ideas without just being silly. “Making people who don’t believe in science the butt of the joke doesn’t do anything to help solve the problem at hand.” While comedy can be a fun and lighthearted way to help an audience remember certain concepts, Dr. Clements wants his students to learn how comedy can be used as a tool for learning rather than a weapon for making others feel worse. This is just one of the many lessons he is teaching that will make his students into strong, mindful presenters and good listeners. 

The Future of Improv and Scientific Communication

Dr. Clements says he would love to see a future with greater integration of improv in scientific education. “The more ‘improv’ you are, the better you are at reacting.” The skills that improv provides, like listening, presenting, and overall mindfulness, are all important in making strong leaders, communicators, and presenters, regardless of the field. While Dr. Clements’ class focuses largely on STEM applications, a non-STEM version of this class would have a great potential impact on the next generation of Vanderbilt graduates as they enter the workforce as leaders in their respective fields.