Alan Alda: From M*A*S*H to Dartmouth College

On November 1, 2013 by Grad Forum

alan_alda_thumbnailOn Friday, October 11, a mixed group of faculty, administrators, and graduate STEM students currently enrolled in the cross-listed Graduate Studies course, Communicating Science, attended a master class taught by Montgomery Fellow, Alan Alda. Alda, who is best known to generations of television viewers for his roles in M*A*S*H, The West Wing, and 30 Rock, also hosted PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005. It was during his PBS experience discussing cutting-edge science with enthusiastic scientists that Alda saw an opportunity to enhance a researcher’s ability to reach out to non-scientists. Alda, alongside talented faculty at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Science Communication, trains scientists in the art of meaningfully and personally connecting with an audience. Their main tool? Improv.

Alda introduced the participants in the master class to a philosophy of interaction grounded in the art of improvisation, techniques he has used throughout his successful acting career. In particular, Alda emphasized the notion that true connection begets fruitful communication of ideas, and that is how you effectively promulgate scientific knowledge. Within ten minutes, Alda had the group engaged in odd-looking acting exercises designed to help participants connect with an audience and to be comfortable in spontaneity. One can only imagine what Hopkins Center passersby thought as they observed our group’s interactions through the large, hallway window.

An early exercise, which he referred to as “mirrors,” had pairs of students following each other’s movements. One person would lead and the other person would follow as if they were a mirror for the first person. After some time, Alda asked that the “leader” position switch between the two players. After a few announced switches, Alda asked the pairs to continue switching without the benefit of an external cue. This simple game underscored how a pair’s success required conscious decisions, on the part of the leaders, to move deliberately and slowly, and seamless transitions between leader and follower necessitated the creation and maintenance of a true connection between the two players.

Having this master class follow his Thursday public talk, in which he highlighted the Communicating Science course and the budding partnership between Stony Brook University and Dartmouth College, seemed to cement the transformative potential in introducing future scientists to the philosophy of improvisation as a tool to help actively connect with audiences. Alda explained his dream of seeing more and more engaging, communicative scientists as a way of increasing our national scientific literacy.

The session was incredibly interesting (though I may be biased as one of the four co-instructors of the Communicating Science course) and introduced a novel approach to enhancing science communication for all audiences. The time shared with Alda was a unique opportunity to observe his genuine love of science.

by Gifford Wong

photo by Eli Burakian ’00 

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