A Strategic Experiment for Promoting an SEAD Community Collaboration: A Machine for Testing Whether it is Possible to Teach Biochemistry to Non-Scientists

Dr. Jonathan Zilberg, Research Associate, Department of Trans-technology,
University of Plymouth
Dr. Barry Kitto, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, University of Texas at Austin

This collaborative position paper establishes the framework for creating a trans-disciplinary community committed to participating in a learning experiment, specifically an integrated SEAD biochemistry project. The strategy proposed here is to use creative means to introduce non-scientists of all ages to basic biochemistry. The logic is that by using an aesthetically interesting and creatively engineered embodied learning experience, the Krebs Cycle can be understood by those with no previous background in science and chemistry – contrary to current pedagogical logic in science education. The purpose of this paper is to document an emerging SEAD community collaboration which will ultimately engineer and test this hypothetical learning experiment.

The pedagogical and philosophical applied principal is that this engineered learning experiment will bring biochemistry to an audience which would otherwise never be introduced to such advanced integrated understandings of chemistry and biology. Hypothetically speaking, a general audience should be able to understand this, the most elemental of the biochemical cycles if it is presented in a sufficiently engaging and accessible way. The goal is that the experience would stimulate greater interest in science and provide a heightened sense of appreciation for biochemical science in a nonintimidating, non hierarchical and trans-disciplinary way. Once the future student has a sense of the whole, the horizon for science education is potentially significantly opened to broader audiences than is currently the case. At the same time, being a trans-disciplinary project, it is designed to enhance biochemists’ and biochemistry students’ ability to conceptualize the structural, synergistic and energetic dynamics of the molecular transformations and processes involved in such cyclical chemical processes.

This project based collaborative strategy paper is designed as a white paper towards attracting additional parties interested in participation in such an experiment, particularly Innovation Learning Centers and Integrated Science Departments. To begin with, the project concept, having been in discussion for many years, has now been formalized. It is being led by a senior biochemist similarly interested in the arts and public education and a social scientist and museum educator with an undergraduate background in biochemistry and applied museum experience in embodied learning and the arts. The SEAD paper will describe the idea and its evolution. It will include discussion of the science and the basic engineering and design required to build and test the machine, as well as the pedagogical logic involved. It will document the emergence of a community of creative individuals from across the SEAD disciplines ideally including engineers, designers, musicians, choreographers and artists who could contribute to the engineered aesthetic experience.

Ultimately the aim is to secure funding and build a collaborative network for testing whether it is indeed possible for non-scientists to develop a basic understanding of the Krebs Cycle through a physical learning experiment or the alternative forms. The three alternative forms for testing this pedagogical experiment with the Krebs Cycle include a board game, a computer game and a dance – The Dance of Life. In describing the ongoing efforts to create and test these prototypes and experimental learning contexts, the paper will document the roadblocks, constraints and thus opportunities which are presented by such collaborations and experiments. To be specific, the action plan is to build acollaborative SEAD community and to design and ultimately test experimental modes of science learning using embodied and aesthetic means.

Each step in the Krebs Cycle will be depicted on plexi-glass pressure plates on the museum floor. As one jumps from one molecule in the cycle to another, its name and two-dimensional molecular structure is lit up in the plate and projected onto the surrounding circular walls. The name of the molecule is voiced and it will ideally also made visible in three dimensions and in rotational motion. The byproducts generated or incoming molecules, each carbon dioxide, oxygen, ADP and ATP molecule, each co-enzyme involved and phosphorylation processes will be accurately depicted including the transformation processes. As the individual jumps or dances from panel to panel, moving around and around the cycle, they will actively acquire this scientific knowledge through an embodied learning experience. Particular attention will be paid to the integration and progression of the music and visuals in such a way as to make it a highly appealing sensory and artistic experience. As a site specific performance art work in its own right, it would be tested in different international contexts with preand post-testing of the learning outcomes. Ultimately, ideally, it would be tested in terms of incorporating it into a school science curriculum.

This is then a white paper about a proposed learning experience. Considering the engineering and financial obstacles of designing such a science learning machine, and towards exploring the crosscultural potentials in play, the project also involves exploring a highly choreographed Javanese dance performance in with each dancer represents an atom, each molecule a group of interacting dancers, and each movement depicting the transformations involved at each step in the cycle. The dancers and the viewers, whether it be in the context of the machine in the museum or the dance in a theater would thus developed embodied understandings and memories of the Krebbs Cycle through a repetitive multisensate experience. For instance, in the case of the science or art museum context, viewers watching from a second floor balcony would indirectly gain the same knowledge through visual and sonic means. When no participants are using the learning apparatus, it would simply go through the cycle on autopilot. Thus the machine would be programmed to generate a continual aesthetic experience. An elemental engineering and artistic requirement is that in every step and every detail, the exact molecular and mathematical factors are accurate and cumulative, even synergistic but above all aesthetically compelling. For instance the all-important consequence of the reaction, the production of energy in the phosphorylation of ADP to produce ATP, and the mechanism of the ATP cascades releasing high energy phosphates, offer powerful opportunities for the visual representation of energy in motion, color and music.

The paper would also describe how in order to extend the experiment into classrooms, additional explanatory materials could be produced. For instance, printed and verbal explanations as well as an explanatory video of the purpose and logic of the experiment as well as other materials such as a board game, also in digital form, could be made available on-line for the purposes of a distributed emergent collaborative learning experiment. Naturally, the choreographed Javanese dance performance of the Krebs Cycle could be filmed and played continuously in a separate gallery in the science or art museum. Simply put, the paper will document the ideas being developed for a hypothetical SEAD experiment.

It is important to emphasize the pedagogical and practical logic driving this project. Globally speaking, with the arguably unnecessary rift between the sciences and non-sciences, too many people are simply unable to learn enough science so as to be able to ever get to the stage of developing a basic understanding of biochemistry. This is because of the necessary compartmentalization and hierarchy of the traditional learning process. If the process was inverted and in this way, synthesized at the start through visual and other means as an experience, students would be able to see the big picture to begin with. Through experiencing the wonder and aesthetics of the integration of chemistry and biology in biochemistry as a scientifically accurate all-encompassing art form, in this case with the iconic example of the Krebs Cycle, science could thus be made more accessible. In proposing this, the proposed SEAD experiment could ultimately make the cycle a subject of fascination for a large number of individuals to whom all of this would otherwise remain a life-long mystery and thus a significant limitation and roadblock to science education in general.

This kind of integrated, embodied and aesthetically enhanced learning experience is specifically designed to take the fear factor out of learning science. One key principle driving this project is that science is commonly seen as either too difficult or uninteresting and this amongst other factors unnecessarily separates the sciences, the arts and the humanities very early in the game. We lose potential scientists early in the educational process because of this factor and the years of study it takes before one develops an appreciation of the integration of the sciences. This is nowhere more fundamental than in the conjunction of biochemistry and molecular biology when all the basics including basic biology, math and chemistry come together. Accordingly, the logic of this SEAD experience is then to bridge the worlds of science and non-science.

The roadblocks, constraints and challenges for such a collaborative project are elemental. They extend far beyond the difficulties involved in securing funding and bringing together sufficiently interested and trained individuals capable of designing and engineering the physical, visual, sonic parts of the experiential learning machine. But should the machine ever be built, the board or computer games created and the Javanese inspired dance choreographed, practiced and performed to modified gamelan music become a reality, it would have been a direct outcome of this NSF SEAD White Paper.

This paper documents the emergence of a germinal SEAD collaborative community with a specific practical aim. The goal is to design, build and test an apparatus which would prove or disprove whether it is possible to teach relatively advanced science through a multi-sensory embodied learning experience. Both project leaders have previous experience in museum and discipline based education. In that this project has evolved out of previous experiments as noted in the paper. Similarly, the basic principles at work will be related to theories of learning, the evolution of edutainment, embodied arts based education and more recent digital based on-line learning environments more generally.

The paper is at pains to identify roadblocks including technical and cultural issues. Briefly put, they are as follows. The roadblocks to this project are not hypothetical. They are based on many years of unsuccessful attempts to secure support for this experiment in innovation centers in the US, UK and Asia. The established position appears to be that it is not realistic or possible to teach something as advanced as the basics of biochemistry to a general audience whether or not one uses such an unusual experimental technique. Moreover, the complexity of the engineering and art relating to the integration of sound, image and experience requires considerable collaboration. Most problematic of all, it would involve significant expense. Furthermore it would require working across disciplines and institutions including the business sector. It would involve the collaboration of a group of individuals who would ordinarily not creatively interact especially to these specific goal oriented science and arts educational ends.

Innovation Learning Centers are in effect SEAD institutions and thus the perfect context for testing such an experiment. However, there are many exciting developments underway globally for artsand sciences collaborations and these provide any number of potential contexts for realizing this kind of project. One expected outcome of this paper is then that the mere fact of formalizing the idea and building a germinal network to expand its scientific and pedagogical basis, its design and institutional reach, will lead towards securing a testing context.

As regards cultural and inter-national issues, the point behind this project is that science education of this sort is value-free and is relevant in the same way to all students and scientists regardless of the cultural or national context. The aim is to advance science education particularly in contexts where is increasingly under threat through the erosion of educational funding and religious conservatism. In addition, even in the social sciences and humanities sectors in contexts where science is an area of intellectual interest and critical analysis, all too often the basic logic of science and what it involves, its practice, is misunderstood and under-appreciated. This is the direct consequence of a lack of sufficient training in science across the disciplines and thus knowledge of what is at stake in the issue of fact versus fiction and interpretation. This potentially impacts on something like the Krebs Cycle as it is a chemical process and not simply a discourse about what scientists imagine is going on at the cellular and molecular level. The importance of such issues will naturally also be commented upon in the paper in terms of roadblocks and obstacles.

This SEAD biochemistry project is led by a social scientist with training in science and a scientist who is also an artist. It is co-led by Dr. Barrie Kitto of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Jonathan Zilberg who was trained in Dr. Kitto’s lab and where this project first was conceptualized in the early 1980’s. Both project directors have applied interests and experiences in art and in science education in museums in different national and international contexts. Zilberg is affiliated with the Department of Transtechnology at the University of Plymouth, with the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in Asia with the National Islamic University of Indonesia in Jakarta (Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah). The project therefore has considerable potential national and international reach. Finally, the names and institutional affiliations of the collaborators joining in this project will be noted in the paper and their contributions duly noted as will be any opportunities which may emerge as a result of the preparation towards publication of this NSF SEAD White Paper.