The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, in partnership with several universities and a science advisory committee of distinguished international researchers in physics and astronomy, is producing "The Matter of Origins," a two-part experimental program that engages the public in explorations of the nature of beginnings and the physics of the origin of matter. Act I takes place in a theater where audiences will experience a dance performance illuminated by video and a vivid soundscape. Act II takes place in an adjacent space where audiences, who will be seated with scientists, historians, philosophers, and religious leaders, can participate in facilitated dialogue about the nature of origins in an immersive environment that incorporates dance, projected images, and provocative questions. The program will be implemented around the country, initially at four universities, with possible expansion to additional venues.

The goals of this EAGER project are (1) to develop an innovative model for using dance, digital media, and structured dialogue to attract and engage public audiences in science content and processes and (2) to explore how artistic practices may have broader applications with respect to science learning and research. The intention is to explore how science can be represented in the art and in the experience and not simply interpreted into abstract choreographic expression with a program note. The program elements and outcomes will be evaluated by researchers from Michigan State University who will study impacts on the public and on participating professionals - dancers, scientists, etc. Dissemination of results will be to professional communities in the sciences, arts and informal science education.

Project Report

was an experience in informal science learning that combined media, conversation, and contemporary dance performance. It usually consisted of two parts or "acts." In Act One, an onstage presentation combined live dance performance, a multi-track sound score, and projected video. With these elements, the work addressed such ideas as the complexity of measurement, the ways that atomic particles interact, the origins of the universe, and the nature of scientific inquiry and discovery. Science-themed production elements included projections of Hubble Space Telescope images, video footage from CERN, and excerpts from the writings of Marie Curie and Edith Warner (the Los Alamos teahouse proprietor who hosted the physicists who developed the first atom bomb during World War II). In Act Two, the primary focus of the National Science Foundation grant, audience members adjourned to a nearby room where tables were set for tea. Seated at each table was a "provocateur," a local scientist or scholar whose job it was to initiate and facilitate conversation. Serving as emcee for the experience was a speaking dancer portraying Edith Warner, joined by a local physicist who addressed the audience and danced with Edith. Dancing servers presented iPads featuring scientific video content and offered chocolate cake made to Edith’s original recipe. Provocateurs led conversations designed to encourage participants to reflect on specific science ideas such as: the ethical responsibilities that follow on scientific discovery, the differences and commonalities between science and art, and issues of scientific measurement including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The Matter of Origins was developed by choreographer Liz Lerman through collaboration with the Dance Exchange performing ensemble and work with an advisory group of 16 scientists, including representatives of the Space Telescope Science Institute (home of the Hubble Project) and CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider near the Swiss/French border). The Matter of Origins was presented 16 times at six sites, Including: The University of Maryland, College Park (September 9-12, 2010); Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT (one-act adaptation, February 24, 2011); Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ (March 24-27, 2011); Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ (April 11, 2011); Imagining America Conference, Minneapolis, MN (adapted version, September 22-24, 2011); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL ( November 9-13, 2011). Spanning the entire project, a study was conducted by an evaluation research team based at Michigan State University. Audience members at The Matter of Origins were surveyed to measure changes experienced in five categories relevant to informal science learning and the goals of the project: 1) interest and engagement in science; 2) attitude toward science and scientists; 3) knowledge of physics and other areas of science inquiry; 4) behavior in relation to science learning opportunities; and 5) perceptions of connections between science and art. At presentations of The Matter of Origins, audience members filled out three written surveys, which were administered prior to the performance, during the intermission, and near the end of the tea. A six-month follow-up with a subset of audience members provided additional data about the longer term impact of the experience. The resulting data are reported and analyzed in detail in a multi-chapter report prepared by the research team. Summary findings include: Attendance at the dance performance (Act One) significantly improved attitude about, and increased interest and knowledge of, physics and science, but had no impact on science-related behavior or the perception of connections between art and science. The tea-and-conversation experience (Act Two) produced lasting positive increases in attitude, interest, knowledge, behavior, and arts/science connections (all five of NSF impact categories). There was no significant decrease six months later. There was evidence that attending The Matter of Origins was particularly effective in having a positive impact on groups traditionally underrepresented in science including women, persons of color and less highly educated people. Based on the premise that emotional engagement has a positive impact on the quality and lastingness of a learning experience, audience members were surveyed for their emotional responses. Asked to circle emotions that represented their state of mind, responders most frequently indicated such positive feelings as engaged, curious, intrigued, stimulated and amused. Across multiple sites, 84 percent of audience members responding to an open-ended question reported noting at least one significant science idea in the Act Two experience. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, named by 27 percent of responders, was most frequently cited. Among those surveyed, there was a strongly positive response to the Act Two tea with 83 percent agreeing with the statement "The tea was an effective way for me to learn science informally." For information about The Matter of Science as public programming and art/science collaboration, please contact John Borstel at For information about the evaluative research component of this project, please contact Diane Doberneck at

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Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Takoma Park
United States
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