stepping in: on vulnerability; or, “a physicist walks onto a dance floor…”

A few months ago, Andy was telling me about his work with college students preparing to be elementary school teachers and their experience with his science class. Andy sets up authentic science experiences for these students who have very little background in and often animosity towards science. They most always have very little experience with it outside of a few disengaging courses.

Andy’s data and narrative tell how these students come along to embrace science in new ways in his course. Students embrace scientific inquiry in new, personal ways because they actually get an opportunity to try it on for size, see how it fits them as individuals. Yet, the surprising twist in all this is that the students talk about feeling vulnerable during the experiences of trying on scientist identities. The experience is new, and the identity they’re feeling out is unfamiliar.

Andy’s first reaction to this, like mine, is to grimace, feeling like, yet again, we’ve created a situation in which we’re alienating novices from a field that we want them to embrace. But there’s still another plot twist: the students go on to explain that being “vulnerable” wasn’t a negative emotion in this case, but one of empathy. They were relating to the perspective of a scientist, one of tentativeness, skepticism, unknowing. They felt vulnerable in that they saw how their ideas were always being put to a test, that all of the possibilities were on the table. They were empathizing with the scientific experience, having stepped into this role and seeing it from the inside. In the right context, the vulnerability was something they valued rather than despised. They learned something more about science and what it really should feel like, and from their reflection they could describe to people like Andy and me something about science that I hadn’t appreciated fully. The vulnerability is uncomfortable but also an opening for new ideas and experiences.*

I’ve understood this better as I’ve put myself in my own vulnerable spaces. I’ve had the chance to take my first (and only) dressage lesson, sitting upon and asking (and “asking” is exactly the correct term here) a horse to negotiate the arena at different paces and gaits. I got to have my table of privilege turned, being the only white guy in the room when working with AmeriCorps volunteers in Atlanta. I’ve attempted other things new to me, ranging from making whiskey to running long distances, and I’d like to think that all of these help me mirror an empathy for the novice science students. I’m trying to better understand that place of vulnerability, with both the inherent risks and benefits.

My most salient vulnerable experience, however, is embodied in the moment that I stepped out onto the floor of the dance studio. To say, “I was called out to the floor to fill in for a dancer,” is ridiculous as far as tales go. The story boils down to us swinging these pendulums — balls and string — that I’d cut and tied; and then there was a dancer that had to drop the class; and there I was, the science consultant, standing there in the corner of the studio. In my memory’s eye, there was an awkward silence as all dancers’ heads turned towards me. Then there was an invitation and a phrase I had to work out that was in sync with the swinging of a pendulum, my rigid flexors and inflexible muscles trying to find their way through a fluid space. Even as I describe these things in my own recollection and my own notes I’m not sure that I have an assured belief that this all really happened. I’m a science teacher, not a dancer, inflexible in all manners of speaking.

But then, the fact that I can barely sit cross-legged on the floor was part of the fun. And also I’d come to the point in my weeks of collaboration with dancers that I’d recognized that they were putting themselves in vulnerable positions, literal and figurative, every day. So, there was some whimsy in it all, like imagining the joke with a first line: “a physicist walks onto a dance floor …” And there was also a sense of responsibility. There were twelve pendulums that I’d asked the dancers to work into a piece, and yet there were eleven dancers now.

Alongside that whimsy and the responsibility, there was also a comfort in that place. There’s still no comfort for me in extending a limb or even making sure that there’s a sense of fluidity to a motion. In my typical comfort zone, when I’m supposed to be standing still in front of a class, I end up pacing back and forth; and when you ask me to move fluidly (or stand still) I default to the pacing again. Upright with stiff legs is my default state of existence, a strange alternate to Newton’s first law of motion that I teach. But after three months of doing this dance collaboration from the sidelines, I could step out. I’d seen and admired those other eleven people do such day after day, sometimes being asked to do something impromptu, something they’d never rehearsed, something that was awkward and unknown, something that would almost certainly be discarded before the final performance. If they were comfortable with this, surely I could at least try. It goes back to a notion of trust, perhaps, or of culture, maybe. Maybe there was courage, though it felt like anything but. There, simultaneously, was a clear sense of vulnerability and comfort stacked into the same moment. It required some combination of what I brought, what I had been developing, and especially the welcoming of this space become enculturated in.

Through my field trips of seeing teaching happen in multitudes of places, it’s clear that the space is essential. This is more obvious in some venues than others: a giant aquarium, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Old Faithful at Yellowstone, a sparse expanse of the Needles District in Canyonlands. In large part, such destinations and experiences aren’t simply enveloped by their spaces, but are defined by them. The physical space creates the interaction. Other venues can’t rely on a ready-made space. The experience itself has to be created in tandem with the space. I’d like to think of our Science in the Parks program, or Science Education at the Crossroads in these ways. People aren’t there to take in a physical spectacle or experience a certain ambience. The memorable part of the space has to be built into something else.

As I’ve learned through a new collaboration, the Treehouse Museum is another one of those spaces. “Step into a Story” is Treehouse’s trademarked invitation to visitors, and this manifests itself as children walk into all kinds of different exhibitations of story and pretend. These range from a barn to a diner to the Oval Office to a medieval castle. There’s a wide spectrum of nooks, corners, and enclosures that each represent a culture: You can sit down at a table setting low to the ground and learn about preparation of fish in Japan, and a few steps and half a world away you can be immersed in German folklore while you stage your own puppet show. These exhibits invite children and parents to engage side-by-side, as they step into each culture and shared experience, together.

In many of the exhibits, children play their part by dressing up. The entryway to an attraction on “heroes” has assorted clothing hanging on pegs immediately across from a large mirror. A child can become a firefighter, an astronaut, a mail deliverer. Most explicit in this dress-up practice is Treehouse’s ParticiPlay. Hosted in their theater, a museum docent becomes the interactive narrator of a story in which children become the stage performers. As the story is told the children act out their parts, having literally stepped onto the stage, into costumes, and into the story at hand. When I sat alongside an audience of field tripping first graders, the students were not only willing, but simultaneously exuberant and focused about the prospect. The girl cast as a rabbit made sure that she hopped across the stage; the boy taking the role of a wizened king would twist his face and stroke his beard; the “cat” inflected cunning in her lines.

What strikes me about watching children in a ParticPlay is that they can immediately do the act of stepping in and become not a puppet at the hands of the narrator, but a true participant — even when they are not familiar with the tale being told. They make facial expressions to reflect the perspective of their character and they laugh when there’s humor or irony. The narrator describes the hypothetical and the child makes this all real. I can’t help but think that they’ve uncovered something in the process that goes beyond something they could gain by just hearing the narration. They take on a new perspective that can only be had by being something else, a talking cat or a princess or an ogre. There’s empathy and celebration of a character that was made possible by wearing the right costume and stepping up to a stage only twelve inches off the floor. And, of course, they were invited and welcomed onto that otherwise foreign space.

This takes me back to Andy’s “vulnerable” science students. Hearing about these teachers-to-be, I’ve come to realize the importance of vulnerability in other venues. Pre-teachers taking scientists’ perspectives, the ParticiPlay actors stepping up on the stage, and my own dance introduction all expose us in similar ways. In all cases, the space had to be safe and welcoming, but it also kept this in tension with a certain amount of risk. “Risk” doesn’t feel like the right attribute at first blush, since there isn’t a case of finding the hand hold on the edge of a rock face or the inherent danger of swimming with sharks. Instead, this is the kind of risk you associate with being in the wrong place, hoisting the wrong identity, feeling exposed because you are a novice to a culture. In all these cases, this out-of-place self could be acknowledged and simultaneously encouraged. Setting the stage to make us vulnerable is a delicate but important balance. The stage should be only a few inches of the ground, but still far enough that we get to see things differently.

Stepping onto a dance floor, I didn’t have the full set of tools of a dancer (e.g., being able to touch my toes without bending my knees). But I was given just enough of a prop and an invitation so that I could experience a literal change of perspective, looking from the stage towards the audience. It’s harder than it looks, as they say. But it’s also impossible to understand that perspective without actually taking it. That’s the attitude I had to take to step onto a dance floor. It’s important that this space wasn’t empty. I was emboldened by the others and the culture that they created. I recognized the vulnerability as something that made me uncomfortable; but, it is also something that’s a critical part of a dancer’s culture, as well as the scientist’s. This is something that you can’t learn from the comfortable seats of the audience. We have to let learners take the stage. And we have to take the responsibility to extend a hand to bring them there.


*I flash back to an on-the-air radio conversation I had with another science educator. His contention was that understanding science is a form of “power”. I balk at this. Yes, it’s true that you can think about lots of different problems in powerful ways by using scientific inquiry and reasoning. Let me be the first to promote this. At the same time, I disagree that this power is the real strength of science, nor the singular attribute I want students to get from understanding science. Instead, I want them to be open to new ideas, and to be able to kick some off to the side with this tool. I want them to be ready for the next idea with wide eyes and a narrow gaze.