A Moving Field Guide

Seeing the World
Science starts with noticing the world – what plants and animals do, the changes in vegetation over time – or in wondering what’s going on beneath the surfaces we see.  Careful observation continues as we devise instruments or methods to extend our initial view, guided by models and concepts.  Experiments are another window for observing new conditions, perhaps ones that don’t usually exist in the real world.
Whatever makes people notice the world and its denizens more closely, or even at all, advances science and the appreciation of scientific knowledge.  I was fortunate to recently see how dance opened the eyes of about a dozen 5th and 6th graders from east Baltimore.  Members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in cooperation with Dr. Mark Twery of the Forest Service and Dr. Marla McIntosh of the University of Maryland led the young people through several activities that sensitized them to their immediate environment, familiarized them with the compass directions, and provided opportunities to observe aquatic and terrestrial situations in Patterson Park.

Moving To Notice/Noticing To Move

Those of us who are trained in science are used to paying close attention to the world, guided by years of experience under the tutelage of mentors and collaboration with colleagues.  After a while it becomes a habit, and paying close attention can be almost automatic.  But how do you get a 5th grader to notice the environment and organisms?
Members of The Dance Exchange company had a plan.  Get the kids to relax into movement.  Get them to do some simple orienteering, and ask them to observe something special and personal along the way, pay attention to each kid.  Some of the company members had backgrounds in environmental education, and along with the visiting experts, engaged in discussions that refined or generated new understanding about life, energy, and leaves of giant oak trees, seed dispersal in little leaf linden, tasty fruit of Juneberry trees, and migration of birds.  The students also thought about the connections, some plausible and some quite fanciful, that might have led to the demise of a giant mulberry tree.  
The dancers and the kids invented movements to represent the insights they learned along the way.  The swirling motion of dispersing winged seeds, the shivering collapse of a dead tree, the upward swoop of water rising in the trunks of  trees, an imagined encounter with a bushy tailed skunk that might depend on one of the trees, and the left handed, right handed, and ambidextrous shapes of mulberry leaves were some of the observations and ideas that made it into the dances.  It was a special treat to see the creative “ah ha moments” as the professional dancers translated ecological facts and observations into motions – sometimes small, and sometimes grand in scope.  These moves were combined into dances that also embodied personal reactions to the local environment, memories of trips, and events in the kids’ lives.

Dancing To Remember

Over the course of a couple hours in the park, a goodly amount of ecological knowledge was imparted or reinforced.  The two groups of students and their accompanying Dance Exchange members collaborated to generate some impressive and engaging sequences of moves.  These dance sequences became the “Moving Field Guide,” a lively phrase created by Cassie Meador of the Dance Exchange.  The Moving Field Guide added a new creative dimension to the usual records of scientists: making notes, recording measurements of dimensions and processes in the material world, and interpreting those observations in the light of existing concepts and knowledge.  Thinking about dance movement as a way to facilitate the entry of novice observers into the complexities of ecological structures and processes was new to me.  It proved to be a powerful tool, and I suspect one that will help cement new ecological knowledge for the students who helped make the Moving Field Guide, Patterson Park, June 2, 2011.