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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Chemistry Meets Choreography to Enhance Student Comprehension

A former science teacher helps kids dance their way to understanding.
By Jane S. Burke
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

For years, as the creative-schools coordinator of a rural public school, I worked to get the arts integrated into all areas of study. Convinced by all I had read about multiple intelligences that this would result in better teaching and learning, I managed to persuade teachers to open their classrooms to resident artists.

And, as a former chemistry teacher, when I was asked to substitute teach in a high school chemistry course, I jumped at the chance. Despite the misgivings of some of my teaching colleagues, I became the first high school science teacher in the district -- and possibly anywhere -- to share her classroom with a resident artist. For two weeks, I brought in a professional dancer so that we would explore the abstract ideas behind chemical reactions through movement.

We pushed all the chairs to the edges of the room to create space when the dancer arrived. Because he knew no chemistry, my students and I had to explain to him about ionic, covalent, and metallic bonds and the types of chemical reactions. To help him create meaningful movements for the class, he constantly asked the students "why" and "how" -- how electrons behave, how strong one bond is compared to another, what polar means. Listening to the students' answers, I was impressed by their attention to all the details the dancer needed to understand.

This depth of exploration would never have occurred in the regular classroom setting. As one student wrote in her journal, "I had come to hate paper and pencil busywork and had formed a mental block against chemistry that I thought would never change. By applying the arts to our chemistry class, you have temporally erased that mental block."

Produced and directed by Lawrence Burke for Flying Cloud Motion Pictures. © 2009.

Another wrote that dancing depicted things that were hard to explain in words. "I was able to think about concepts in a completely different way. Because you cannot actually see what is happening on the atomic level during a reaction, it was helpful to dance it out. Over the days we worked on this, there wasn't one person in the class who wasn't always involved. That's a record!"

The connection between the choreography and the science became very specific. As another student put it, "Now when I think 'double bond,' I visualize how we showed it in our dance."

Students reported that the dance helped them answer questions on the state chemistry achievement exam. They closed their eyes and visualized their dance to retrieve information about chemical reactions.

Besides enhancing the students' understanding of concepts, dance helped reveal their unrecognized talents. One boy had been withdrawn and unresponsive, never entering into class discussions. But when asked to show, through movement, the chemical reaction known as a single replacement, he grabbed two of his classmates to form the covalent bonds of the ion and whirled around the room to find a "metal." Evaluating the day's lesson later, he said, "Dancing helped clear up chemistry ideas that had been hard for me to understand. I also learned not to be nervous in front of people. I think that dancing has helped me be more open and not so shy in class."

A failing student astounded everyone with his remarkable dance intelligence. He was able to repeat a complex twelve-count phrase after seeing it only once. "I really put in an effort to understand the chemistry so I could make a good dance," he explained. Some students worked with first graders, teaching them about chemical reactions and then choreographing and performing with them. A young man said, "I felt empowered because the first graders wanted to hear what I had to say about science."

"This experience showed me that I can learn from doing papers," said another student, "but for my mind to really get a good picture of something, I have to see it displayed, or display it myself."

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

But there was even more of a dividend, as this boy showed me: "Changing the ways we learn will help us later on, because we will be more open minded." Arts in education is powerful, and it works.

Jane S. Burke, a former science teacher, is the director of the nonprofit Flying Cloud Institute.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

CodyPT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I suggest your students spend more time in a laboratory than on the dance floor.

It's bad enough that Physical Chemistry has hijacked the HS chemistry course. Now... dancing? The next thing will probably be playing Scrabble with the element symbols.

Get into a lab and learn what chemistry really is.

Edem's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well, all work and no play...
Some times the 'dance' could be well organized so that there will be an instructional element in it. This is to say that, any thing can be modeled to teach a concept, skill or a generalization. The 'dance' is not bad to me, since to the teacher it is to teach a concept. Rather, let us research into ways of using such approaches to make our teaching and learning processes more meaningful and also make our students problem solvers, critical thinkers and what have you.

Denise 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why are you so negative? People learn in many different ways, and for someone to explore a physical way of making chemistry make sense to more students, more power to her!

Julie Dwyer, Instructional and Professional Development Spec's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching Chemistry through dance shows thoughtful implementation of the latest brain research which shows that movement is a powerful conduit to retention of knowledge. I wonder how much Chemistry the individual who wants kids to "stay in the lab" can actually remember. Research in how the human mind works tells us that these students will actually remember and be able to apply what they have learned. Bravo to this teacher for stepping "outside the lab."

Blez2educ8's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The dance only replaces the anachronistic lecture or seat work. As research shows, everyone learns differently and that multiple intelligences exist. So, I applaud the teacher for making the effort to reach all learners. Please also note that chemistry in most high schools is no longer a choice, all students including special educated students are required to enroll into a chemistry course.

Francine Groener's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was delighted and proud to see the article by Jane Burke regarding Chemistry in Motion. I happen to be a teacher in the same school district where we were and still are fortunate enough to have Jane Burke add to our school experiences and learning. Not only do the students have the opportunity to learn science in a new and exciting way, but it is also an opportunity for the teachers to step out of the box and experience different approaches and techniques. My son attended the high school Jane substituted in and gained from his experience with her. He also took other classes with her. In fact , as a college graduating senior he still talks about and remembers Jane Burke's chemistry class. To this day he sees himself as a "science guy" and majored in Physics in college. He has had offers from graduate schools to pursue a Physics Phd. You never know what inspires and motivates a child . Jane Burke has developed a way to teach and integrate the arts with science and it works. She has brought life to her subjects and enlightened the students in a fun creative way. Thank you to Jane who has never lost sight of her passion to integrate the arts with sacience and math.

Randy Barron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As this courageous and innovative teacher found out, students who don't "get" the concepts through ordinary means (verbal, printed, visual aids) can make huge breakthroughs by engaging in movement invention to bring the ideas to life. This kind of learning is also nearly unforgettable, since it is stored in our bodies as well as in our "minds." When we force students to engage in rote laboratory work before they understand the concepts, we turn them off of learning and make our jobs as educators nearly impossible. The person who wrote in to say "get into a lab and learn what chemistry really is" wasn't paying attention, or doesn't care if some students don't ever want to cross the lab threshold. That approach isn't working, hasn't worked, and won't work just because we are too grumpy to think of new ways to teach and learn.

By inviting learners to experience concepts first-hand as well as to read about them, hear about them, and see the results in the laboratory, we help them integrate what they have learned into their lives. Isn't that what we want from an educational system?

Mallory Bagwell's picture

Movement is almost always a good instructional tool for introductory, confirmatory, elucidation, maybe elaborative reasons too. It's placement in the curricular sequence and the age groups should be considered by practitioners and critics alike. Chances are are the above techniques could clarify various bonds and reactions to elementary aged children way before chemistry is thought to be appropriate for such ages whereas on a high school level it might be viewed as frivolous. Interaction is a concept that covers so much of the curriculum and multiple approaches(both in learning styles and expression styles) are essential to explore. Movement is not as efficient as paper and pen work but can be very effective when used judiciously and in a balanced manner for, especially with concept introductions. A chemist who entertains the idea of playing with motion in the broadest sense is probably a better or more creative chemist than one who doesn't. 3M corporation, MIT and its Media Lab, all encourage "cross-platform" development ideas, not as an end in itself but as one more facilitative tool. Relax and enjoy the exchange. Dance or no dance chemists still have to do what chemists do, but you just might have more people going into chemistry because of such approaches as these

Mallory Bagwell's picture

Movement is almost always a good instructional tool for introductory, confirmatory, elucidation, maybe elaborative reasons too. It's placement in the curricular sequence and the age groups should be considered by practitioners and critics alike. Chances are are the above techniques could clarify various bonds and reactions to elementary aged children way before chemistry is thought to be appropriate for such ages whereas on a high school level it might be viewed as frivolous. Interaction is a concept that covers so much of the curriculum and multiple approaches(both in learning styles and expression styles) are essential to explore. Movement is not as efficient as paper and pen work but can be very effective when used judiciously and in a balanced manner for, especially with concept introductions. A chemist who entertains the idea of playing with motion in the broadest sense is probably a better or more creative chemist than one who doesn't. 3M corporation, MIT and its Media Lab, all encourage "cross-platform" development ideas, not as an end in itself but as one more facilitative tool. Relax and enjoy the exchange. Dance or no dance chemists still have to do what chemists do, but you just might have more people going into chemistry because of such approaches as these

"Professor" Paul O. Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul O. Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

This strategy is very similar to what I use with my classroom students using Virtual Science University. www.virtualscienceuniversity.c om I get them involved with the music and dance steps and the comprehension level goes to a higher dimension. This type of teaching enhances student's comprehension. I am grateful that others are using the arts to enhance learning in Science Education. Many people who make statements like "you ought to spend more time in the lab", are not versed in the research on the multiple intelligence model and may be threatened by this type of teaching. I've had many teachers make this type of remark about my way of teaching. At the end, what counts is student comprehension. I applaud you for teaching in this manner! Your students are going to remember you for the rest of their lives!

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