Professor demonstrates that comedy improv skills can strengthen STEM presentations

“The main principles of improv comedy are that you have to be really present, you have to be supportive of the other people on stage, you have to be willing to listen, and you have to be willing to take risks,” says Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences Andrea Young.

During her postdoctoral days, Young travelled the country performing comedy improv. When she began teaching, Young wanted to bring her improv skills into the classroom and explore the ways that improv could help math students communicate.

“There are stereotypes about those who study STEM,” Young says. “They’re seen as very smart, but also cold, shy and hard to understand.”

Through improv comedy, Young has striven to help her students develop skills they may not have developed otherwise. She has taught improv tactics in her classrooms for years, hoping to help her students become stronger presenters. In 2013, Young also published an article about these applications, “Improvisation in the Mathematics Classroom.”

After seeing a presentation on a similar topic, Associate Professor of Biology Barbara Sisson approached Young to teach these same improv skills to her Senior Seminar class. On Feb. 23, Young worked with biology seniors, playing improv comedy games with them and working to boost their communication skills. These games emphasized cooperation and presence, encouraging students to act in the moment without planning beforehand.

“It can be very freeing,” Young says. “STEM people tend to spend a lot of time in our own heads. Getting out of our own way is important when it comes to communicating. It’s always a challenge. This is way out of some people’s comfort zones, and it’s an exciting challenge to help everybody.”

Marshall Sohr ’18
Oshkosh, Wisconsin


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