Putting the body into science education

Magdalena Kersting

The aim of science is to discover and describe the world around us, and we observe and study this world with and through our bodies. From tinkering with experimental setups to perceiving phenomena through our five senses, our bodies are the tools that give us access to the world. The aim of science education is to promote scientific literacy and develop a curiosity about the natural world. Nevertheless, the role of the inquiring body in science education has largely been neglected. Educational systems have traditionally emphasized the brain and the mind as the locus of our thinking, thereby often ignoring how the body responds to and helps in the process of learning science.

Figure 1: When pulling ropes, students can connect their embodied experience to the formal laws of Newtonian mechanics.
Photo: RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

In this piece, I argue that we can energize classrooms and foster science learning by embracing embodied teaching methods. Specifically, I present three distinct ways in which teachers can support their students to think with and through their bodies in the science classroom. These instructional recommendations result from a research project on embodied cognition in science education and root in insights from psychology and philosophy (Kersting et al., 2021).*

The basic premise of embodied cognition is that cognitive processes are linked to the dynamic ways in which people use their bodies to engage with the world. What might sound vague at first has very practical implications in the context of science education. For example, students might use gestures to express emerging ideas or metaphors to express abstract concepts. In other words, students’ knowledge of science is inseparable from their bodily interactions in the world. This observation can allow teachers to improve their instructional practices.

The body provides the basis of cognitive structures
From the smallest building blocks of matter to the largest astronomical structures, many science phenomena seem abstract and far removed from students’ everyday experiences. To make sense of such immaterial concepts, humans ground understanding in their bodies through a cognitive transfer mechanism. Bodily interactions with the environment give rise to recurring structures in cognitive processes. These structures, so-called image schemas, can be transferred to other, more abstract domains of thought to aid reasoning. Put differently: the brain uses embodied experiences to build understanding of scientific concepts.

Teachers can use this insight to ground instructional activities in embodied sources. Such grounding can invite students to perform embodied activities that activate image schemas.

This instructional strategy is particularly useful in physics. Here, students can link their experiences of exerting effort and experiencing resistance (in other words, force-based image schemas) to the laws of classical mechanics. After all, classical mechanics describe motion at the human scale and students can directly experience that their bodies are mechanical objects (Bruun & Christiansen, 2016). For example, students can work in groups to pull each other with a rope. The students will feel the pressure from the cord and the tension in their bodies (Figure 1). Teachers can guide the students to transfer these embodied experiences to the formal laws of Newtonian mechanics by letting them write down descriptions of their bodily observations, the science concepts they believe to be relevant to their experiences and possible explanations that connect the bodily experiences with the science concepts.#

The body offloads cognitive work onto the environment
A second way in which bodies bear on thinking is the possibility of extending cognition to the environment. Scientists routinely offload information to external structures to reduce cognitive load. Such thinking outside the brain can take the simple form of writing down equations onto a blackboard to externalize thought. Here, the internal workings of the mind are projected onto the physical space of the blackboard. This projection reduces cognitive workload and provides a beneficial way of communicating ideas. Similarly, external tools such as smartphones, computers or experimental setups can become integral parts of thinking processes.

Figure 2: Lab work provides an excellent opportunity to teach students how to think outside their brains. Probeware systems collect data which students can interpret directly on the computer. Instead of having to take measurements by hand, students can deepen their conceptual understanding by integrating their thinking with the probeware output.
Photo: Ron Lach from Pexels.

Just like scientists, students can think outside their brains. Consequently, teachers can provide guidance on how to offload scientific thought in the science classroom deliberately. Suppose teachers develop students’ capacity to extend their thinking. In that case, students will engage with science much more productively than if they try to do all thinking in their heads. One excellent example of letting students offload cognitive work is probeware (Bernhard, 2010). Probeware systems consist of sensors connected to a computer that collects and analyzes data in real-time.

Students can perform experiments using a range of different sensors in the lab to gather data on variables such as force, motion, temperature, light or sound. The probeware transforms experimental data directly into a graph on the computer screen. For example, students can follow kinematic graphs, such as velocity – time graphs, with the motion of their own bodies as they approach or move away from a motion detector (Thornton & Sokoloff, 1990). The probeware records the motion of the students and generates kinematic graphs on a screen instantaneously. Students can view the graphs in real-time as they are moving. Instead of making measurements, writing data in a table or generating a graph by hand, probeware allows students to focus on interpreting the graphs that it generates, which in turn, can deepen conceptual understanding (Figure 2). For example, what does it mean that the velocity or acceleration is zero at a certain point in time and how can students represent this scenario by moving their bodies?

The body gives rise to lived experience
There is a third sense in which the body bears on science and education, namely by focusing our attention on scientists and students’ lived experience. Scientists often use identification strategies to facilitate their understanding of science concepts, particularly those that are not easily perceived. Such acts of imaginary identification entail placing oneself into a scientific representation, embodying a scientific scenario, or empathizing with aspects of natural phenomena (Figure 3). Examples include physicist Albert Einstein who famously imagined chasing a light ray or virologist Jonas Salk who said, “I would picture myself as a virus or a cancer cell, for example, and try to sense what it was like to be either and how the immune system would respond.” (Salk, 1983, p. 7)

Figure 3: Inviting students to draw on their lived experiences can be beneficial to science learning. Such an instructional strategy emphasizes the first-person point of view and invites students to embody scientific concepts or scenarios.
Photo: Kindel Media from Pexels.

This observation can improve instructional practices by acknowledging the centrality of the first-person point of view in science education. Teachers can invite students to use their lived bodily experience to express scientific ideas, for example, through dance or drama. The “Particle Dance” workshop illustrates how students can experience and express subjective involvement with science concepts (Nikolopoulos & Pardalaki, 2020). The workshop invited students to empathize with elementary particles. Inspired by the names and properties of elementary particles, each student proposed a simple move to embody one particle. Then, students worked in small groups to turn their movements into a choreography of particle interactions. This activity highlights the centrality of each student’s first-person point of view and shows how students can assume ownership of the science content by drawing on their lived bodily experience.

Science is a highly conceptual domain. Consequently, science learning requires complex cognitive and sociocultural processes that rely both on the brain and the body. Traditionally, instructional practices in science education have often neglected the role of the body, solely focusing on the brain. In this article, I have suggested three ways science teachers can energize their instructional practices through embodied classroom practices. Acknowledging that the body is the basis of cognitive functions can offload cognitive work and give rise to lived experience, allowing teachers to support students’ science learning. Students will think best if they think with their bodies, i.e., if teachers show them how to use their bodies in the service of scientific reasoning.

• Bernhard, J. (2010). Insightful learning in the laboratory: Some experiences from 10 years of designing and using conceptual labs. European Journal of Engineering Education, 35(3), 271-287. https://doi.org/10.1080/03043791003739759
• Bruun, J., & Christiansen, F. (2016). Kinesthetic activities in physics instruction: Image schematic justification and design based on didactic situations. NorDiNa, 12, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.5617/nordina.969
• Kersting, M., Haglund, J., & Steier, R. (2021). A Growing Body of Knowledge: On Four Different Senses of Embodiment in Science Education. Science & Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-021-00232-z
• Nikolopoulos, K., & Pardalaki, M. (2020). Particle dance: Particle physics in the dance studio. Physics Education, 55, 025018. https://doi.org/10.1088/1361-6552/ab6952
• Salk, J. (1983). The anatomy of reality. Columbia University Press.
• Thornton, R. K., & Sokoloff, D. R. (1990). Learning motion concepts using real-time microcomputer-based laboratory tools. American Journal of Physics, 58(9), 858-867. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.16350

*Parts of this text are adapted from this research paper.

#A worksheet can be found on page 72 of the following article: https://journals.uio.no/nordina/article/view/969/2501

The author is an educational researcher, physics educator and science communicator working to bring great science education to as many people as possible. Currently, she works as an assistant professor of science education at the Department of Science Education at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. She can be reached at science@magdalenakersting.com.

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