Teaching young students about the science of energy transfers can be a difficult endeavor. Fortunately, Weber State University’s Center for Science and Math Education presented a new way to teach the concept: improv theater.

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Lauren A. Barth-Cohen, Ph.D. watches as local teachers work through activities to help students learn different areas of science during Teacher Twilight: Energy Theater in Tracy Hall on Mar. 22. Photo credit: Chloe Walker

Teachers gathered in Tracy Hall on March 22 and discussed kinetic and potential energy flows between objects while shuffling amid loops made of rope in a workshop called “Energy Theater.”

Dr. Lauren Barth-Cohen, assistant professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Utah, presented the lecture as part of the Teacher Twilight series aimed at helping instructors gain new teaching ideas.

“We instigated the Teacher Twilight Series this past academic year,” Jennifer Claesgens, director of the Center for Science and Math Education at WSU, said. “What we’re trying to do is support our K through 12 science and math community, so these workshops are offered to teachers for free.”

The Energy Theater workshop sought to provide secondary schoolteachers with a fresh idea of how to teach the difficult concept of energy flows to their students in an engaging way.

“I’m expecting to come away with classroom ideas,” Justin Denny, math teacher at Snowcrest Junior High, said. “I hope to gain an understanding of how to present something in a better way to help students get excited about it.”

Energy Theater was nicknamed the “improv theater for science class,” which appealed to several attendees.

“Energy Theater sounded intriguing to me, like it was a hands-on way that we can better engage the students in what they’re learning,” Mike Olsen, science teacher at Snowcrest Junior High, said. “I look at this as a way to get better ideas of how to energize and reach the students.”

WSU’s College of Science hopes programs like Energy Theater will help provide students with the type of positive learning experience that could encourage them to pursue a future in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“When you can get up, actually move, understand what that movement is called, what that movement is able to do and what reacts to it or responds to it, physically feeling that, I think it will click in a lot of students’ minds,” Alicia Miller, the public relations and outreach coordinator for the College of Science, said. “Hopefully, more students will see science as a future for them.”

Student attendees were asked to represent a unit of energy in a scenario. Each student chose their form of energy and indicated it with hand signals. As the students, or energy, moved from one object to another, represented by loops of rope on the floor, their energy changed form, which they represented by changing hand signals.

Energy Theater’s goal is to teach students, in an engaging and dynamic way, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transported from one place to another.

“Energy is a really important idea of science that cuts across all fields of science,” Barth-Cohen said. “You can think of energy in the physical sciences, biological sciences and in earth science areas. And any scenario where there’s energy flows, transfers and transformations is a scenario where you can do Energy Theater.”

Several of the teachers who attended came away with ideas of how to better present challenging material to their students.

“I can see how this type of modeling is going to assess whether or not they really understand how that energy flows through a system,” Lanette Stephens, teacher at West Haven Elementary, said. “I can see how it will translate to a lot of different things I can take back to the classroom.”

Ultimately, instructors hope Energy Theater will help provide ideas for ways to engage students in learning challenging subjects.

“We hope that doing this type of instruction is really fun,” Barth-Cohen said. “What we want to do is give all students positive experiences in science, which then, we hope, will lead to decisions down the road to major in STEM fields.”

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