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A Scientist Walks into a Bar: Humor in STEM education

With a title like “A Scientist Walks into a Bar: Humor in STEM education,” it’s no surprise that Sunday morning’s session was full of laughs. The naturally funny panel was made up of Jen Lokey, from the Powerhouse Science Center, Durango, Colorado; Paul Taylor from The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; Jonah Cohen from The Children’s Museum, West Hartford, Connecticut; and Elizabeth Martineau and Gordon McDonough, both from the Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Lokey began the session with a look at humor from a neurological perspective, discussing how humor uses the same areas of the brain as higher order processing and problem solving. She also described how people with damage to their prefrontal cortex tend to lose their ability to interpret all kinds of humor, suggesting that that is where humor is processed. So why use humor in children’s educational programs? Kids are naturally funny and respond well to humor, plus they like being included by being “in on” the joke. Kids are also awkward, and humor is a great way to cut through a bit of the awkwardness. To incorporate humor in programs, Lokey suggests hiring a staff that works hard and takes the mission very seriously, but don’t take themselves very seriously, so they’re not afraid to be silly and fun.

Martineau and McDonough went into more detail on how to use humor in an educational setting. Their many tips included paying attention to the audience and playing off of the reaction, using multimedia, and remembering that the silliness needs to make sense and be on topic. Cohen described other benefits of using humor with kids, such as giving children a chance to take a break from the strict, formal education structure and allowing adults to recognize that fun and humor are necessary for their children and can add to interest in an academic topic.

Taylor rounded out the session with universal humor techniques for presenting programs to different cultures. Physical humor and playful competition transcend the language and culture barrier, plus joy and enthusiasm are infectious. In short demonstrations or during a science festival, it can be difficult to teach children a lot, but as Taylor said, “I can’t teach a kid everything about chemistry in 45 minutes, but I can make them say ‘wow, chemistry is really cool.’”