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Why Try Funny? Harnessing humor to heighten STEM education

The standing room-only session “Why Try Funny? Harnessing humor to heighten STEM education” started with a disclaimer: all of the jokes during the session were meant in good fun, and the presenters apologize to anyone offended by the session’s content.

Then, naturally, the presenters moved on to a joke:

There is a man who is suffering from terrible headaches. He goes to a doctor who says he has good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is problem with the man’s brain that, if left untreated, will be fatal. The good news is that brain transplants are available at this hospital, and there are currently two available: one from a politician and one from a scientist. The man asks how much each brain costs. The doctor tells him that the politician’s brain costs $295,000 and the scientist’s brain costs $29.95. The man asks why the scientist’s brain is so much less expensive and the doctor replies, “Because it’s used.”

This laughter-filled, high-energy session included many science demonstrations that the presenters regularly use in their programs to show how humor can be injected into nearly any science explanation or demonstration with the right approach.

Paul Taylor, manager of traveling science shows at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, explained four theories of humor (after quoting Chris Rock who said, “You want to know what’s not funny? Thinking about it.” Irony noted by all attendees.):

  • Superiority Theory—laughing at others unfortunate events (e.g. America’s Funniest Videos)
  • Relief Theory—a cathartic group event brought about by the release of pent-up emotions
  • Incongruity Theory—humor rooted in unpredictability or derailed expectations
  • Benign Violation Theory—when there is a violation of an expectation, but the situation is benign.

Taylor then explained that one benefit of humor is the production of dopamine, which leads to a natural high. He called dopamine the “save button of the brain,” as many studies have shown the link between dopamine and retention. For example, people who watch humorous news shows, such as the Daily Show, retain more information about the news than those who watch regular news broadcasts. Taylor’s list of things to do includes using humor to enhance classroom shows and to develop a sense of community, using content-related and age-appropriate humor, and sandwiching humor between educational material. Things to avoid included sarcasm, cruel or inappropriate humor, forced humor, off-topic humor, and too much humor.

After jokes, Ian Simmons, science communication director at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, presented a snippet from his traveling science comedy show around Game of Thrones. Next, Jen Lokey, curriculum and instruction manager at the Powerhouse Science Center in Durango, Colorado, described a number of ways to easily add humor to programming. They included:

Small Ideas
Puns
Pop culture references
Strategically placed pauses
Puppets
Pronunciation peculiarities and funny voices

Medium Ideas
Build-ups
Let-downs
“Funny-weirds”
Meta-moments

Large Ideas
“Apple vs. Banana” – Two performers work together with one playing the role of the more knowledgeable expert and the other playing a sillier, “goofball” character.

Finally, Jonathan Barnes, camp and science state coordinator and educator at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, described his process for finding and retaining staff that can maintain the culture of the institution. The unofficial motto of his camps is “We like to have fun here,” which he brings to every aspect of his job, including the interviews for summer camp staff. The group interview process starts with ice breakers and improv games, before eventually moving on to more standard interview questions. He suggests doing the “wacky” stuff first in the interview process, otherwise candidates will get locked in a more “professional” mindset and be less likely to show their true personality and energy. Barnes then discussed tricks for getting millenials to read his emails, such as including links to fun GIFs and jokes. He also provided additional tips for staff retention, like holding regular socialization opportunities and using social media. All of this led to stellar reviews about the staff and camp overall from campers and their parents. Barnes summed up his approach with the advice that keeping fun and funny at the forefront leads to better engagement and an overall better experience.