Why is Alan Alda Playing with Science?

Improv and art make for better scientists.

Posted Feb 01, 2014

“I personally think that training in the arts prepares a growing child just as well for a
scientific or technical career as [does] training in STEM subjects, if not better, because the
arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention
to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need
for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile
for future learning.”

So says Thomas Südhof, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine (in an interview appearing on Slipped Disc, a site by cultural commentator, novelist and author or numerous books on music Norman Lebrecht. Both he and Südhof seem like really interesting guys.)

Südhof isn't the only scientist or educator concerned with how best to interest young people—especially underrepresented girls and minorities—in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers. Nor is he alone in recognizing how ongoing “cultural playfulness” aids in scientific creativity and teamwork.

There’s also Alan Alda. The actor, comedian and science aficionado is also an improv devotee. Through the Alan Alda Center of Communicating Science at New York’s Stony Brook Univeristy, the school’s graduate students take an Improvisation for Scientists course and other students and faculty are given the opportunity through the Center’s workshops at conferences and science institutions.

Alda was featured in a recent article in Nature, Communication: Spontaneous Scientists.  We learn how he put two loves of his life together: “After hosting a show called Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005, Alda knew he wanted to continue working in science communication. He remembered how his early training in improvisational theatre had boosted his communication skills, and thought it might be valuable for scientists. In January 2008, he tested the idea with a group of engineering students from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles by asking them to explain their research before and after playing improvisation games. ‘The difference was startling,’ he recalls. ‘This convinced him that the approach was worth pursuing.”

Then there’s John Maeda, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, which launched the STEM to STEAM Initiative, and who brings the message, “Change STEM to STEAM,” to national and international bodies such as the US Congress and the World Economic Forum. 

Last but by no means least, there’s Elmo. That’s right. STEAM has come to Sesame Street. In announcing this, Dr. Rosemarie Truglio (SVP of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop) noted, “As STEM topics continue to be a critical area of a preschooler’s early education, it is important to allow children to explore these concepts through various channels, especially the arts. Incorporating the arts into our STEM curriculum was an exciting and natural addition, as Sesame Street has always used music, visual and performing arts as tools to educate and entertain children.” 

Efforts such as these are important reforms in their own right and if they make the learning and working lives of children and adults more playful, exciting and motivating, they will be worth it. But I also see them as opportunities to create needed conversations on the strong institutional and media bias that glorifies science and denigrates the arts, that values “work” and devalues “play”—and, in the process, stifles human creativity.