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Faculty Learning Community: Agenda and Notes (March 4, 2010)

Anne Dalke's picture

M.A. Papalaskari et. al, "PIVOTS: Service Learning at the Science, Theatre & Magic Boundary." 
IEEE October 28 – 31, 2006, San Diego, CA

Villanova Science & Theater Magic Program

Snacks will be served in the Dorothy Vernon Room in Haffner from 2:30-4pm.

Please invite other interested people to join these conversations. Those of you who hope to join via conference call should contact Howard Glasser before Thursday to work out arrangements.

A note from Mary-Angela Papalaskari, who will be facilitating the conversation:

Hello, thanks very much for inviting me to speak at the Learning community! I am a Computer Scientist from Villanova University. I have been at Villanova since 1988, and my work has been in the areas of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science education. In the past 5 years I have also been working on a project aimed at getting more children interested in computer science, and in STEM subjects more broadly – the ”Science and Theatre Magic Program” that I will be discussing at our meeting.

Meeting Summary (by Howard)
Mary-Angela began with a presentation about the Science and Theatre Magic Program, explaining that the idea arose, in part, due to the Harry Potter books and movies. It was a multidisciplinary summer program involving science, mathematics, and technology instruction; theatre; writing; magic; illusion; and outreach to younger children from Philadelphia. The objectives of the program were to: (1) debunk the myth of ‘nerdy’ scientists; (2) connect with underrepresented populations; (3) repair the misconception of a dichotomy between creativity in the sciences and in the arts; and (4) explore the use of storytelling and re-enactment in the teaching of science. The program ran for three successive summers, beginning in 2005, and continued afterwards with one-day events.

She introduced many of the components of the program, including students’ receipt of an acceptance letter into the program, their boarding of a train on track 3.5 to get to campus, and their sorting ceremony as they were separated into distinct “houses.” Magic lessons included things such as “cauldron concoctions,” “magical trickery,” and “magic workshop.” These lessons were led by teens who were “scholars” in the program. These teens were 13-17 years old and they had arrived two weeks earlier to learn some science and create the school itself. They developed the lessons and story details of the magic school. “Apprentices” were 6-10 year olds who arrived from the City of Philadelphia Summer Recreation camps during the third week for the day program, running from 9am-4pm. In total, they worked with three separate groups of apprentices each summer of about 30-50 students. Adults served as “advisors.”

Three main key features of the program were (1) service learning, (2) integrating STEM and the creative arts, and (3) Magical illusion: a perceived discrepancy between observation and firmly-held beliefs, motivating learners. Mary-Angela discussed these key features and explained the evaluation results. After participating in this program, a number of the teens expressed a greater interest in teaching than at the outset. Additionally, some teens noted that they now realized they would not like to pursue teaching. Over 70% of the teens attended reunions during the year and two scholars attended all three years. Beginning in 2008, the program ceased being three-weeks in length and instead transitioned to one-day meetings. These meetings serve as a reunion for scholars, volunteer opportunity for faculty/apprentice, and outreach to many apprentices.

Mary-Angela then described how this program sought to embrace an inquiry-oriented approach. Instead of supporting “creativity/design by teachers” (i.e., teachers create a hands-on activity in hopes of students being engaged in learning) they sought to promote “creativity/design by students” (i.e., teachers facilitate an engaging presentation and students then create a hands-on activity). As a result of her experiences with this program, Mary-Angela highlighted several challenges that she was interested in considering more deeply. She wished to explore how to turn magic apprentices into magic scholars, how (if) scholar’s science learning was impacted from their experiences in the program, and what are the long-term effects of apprentices’ visits to the magic school (i.e., how does it compare with any other fun visit to a university campus).

When conversation was opened to the larger group, we discussed ways programs such as this one could connect with happenings in schools and with teachers’ needs. Additionally, we discussed the potential conflation of magic and science. Mary-Angela explained that they did notice that a number of younger students accepted “magic” as the explanation for why certain events happened but she noted that their main interest was not in increasing these students’ science knowledge. Instead, the major goal for the younger children was to increase their interest in science; however, she noted that many of the teens who created and delivered the “magic” lessons did increase their understanding of science. We continued to discuss how these experiences might impact the younger children’s understanding and views of science as well as their future experiences in/with science. Some people noted that the magic served as a vehicle for wonderment, awe, and curiosity. These discussions led to questions stemming from some of the evaluation results noting that the physical and mathematical aspects were not as successful and enjoyable to the students. Questions were raised as to why that might be and if there were different paradigms used for different science branches. We discussed how electricity and electronics might have partially contributed to students’ diminished wonderment and awe regarding a lot of potential physics’ “magic” tricks.

Continued Conversation below


Anne Dalke's picture

"While a Magician Works, the Mind Does the Tricks"

I was intrigued--and puzzled--by Mary-Angela's presentation about the Villanova Magic Show: impressed by many dimensions of the program (especially its melding of arts and science, and by its using a group of older children to teach younger ones), but also struck by/stuck on two aspects. First: if magic functions as a great way to hook kids into doing science because of the "perceived discrepancy between observation and firm beliefs," it'll only work if such a dissonance exists; otherwise, they're unlikely to actively seek for explanations. In a world where so many kids believe in magic, that might well be a non-starter. Like Bill, I was also caught by the fact that some of the sciences seemed to catch on less well in this program, and was intrigued by his counter-suggestion of seeking some alternative narratives. If chemistry is more akin to "magic," what "mechanic" stories might facilitate the teaching of physics, what "organic" stories the teaching of biology...?

In a first semester writing seminar I have twice co-taught with a biologist here,  we introduced a section on "interpretation" with these two texts:

Stephen Macknik, Mac King, James Rand, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson and Susana Martinez-Conde. "Attention and Awareness in Stage Magic: Turning Tricks into Research." Nature Reviews Neuroscience. July 30, 2008.

Benedict Carey. "While a Magician Works, the Mind Does the Tricks." The New York Times.  August 22, 2008.

Abstracting from the neuroscience article, Carey explains that magic tricks take advantage of how our brain constructs model of world: the fact that we all engage in "neural approximating," focusing on one thing @ a time, @ the expense of others. Basically: a magician misdirects his audience, and exploits phenomenon--like inattention blindness, change blindness, memory illusions, illusory correlations--to distract his observers from what he's doing, segregating what he wants them to be aware of from what he doesn't...

After reading and discussing these ideas, we had our students perform magic tricks for their hall mates, monitoring and reporting on their responses. That intrigued them with some of the possible ways in which magical techniques that manipulate attention can be used to understand the behavioral and neural basis of consciousness. This also worked quite well for their stepping off next into a project of literary interpretation, w/ an increasing awareness that "incoming information is always ambiguous, and subject to multiple interpretations"; that in a world in constant flux, our brains "locate and give meaning to randomness," by relying on "the presumption that things don't change a lot over time."

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