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The pandemic made her join the circus

Published Nov 24, 2021

Like many others, Luigia Brandimarte was forced to teach online when the pandemic struck. Being used to interactive teaching in classrooms, she found it difficult to explain complex concepts to her students in the restricted online format. This gave her the impulse to reach out to the Department of Circus at Stockholm University of the Arts (SKH), resulting in a collaboration that turned out to be both rewarding and challenging for KTH and SKH students alike.

Luigia Brandimarte (Foto: KTH)

Luigia Brandimarte, an associate professor in hydraulic engineering at the Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Engineering (SEED), teaches water-related courses in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment's educational programmes. At the bachelor level, she teaches fluid mechanics to civil engineering and energy and environment students. To make equations more intuitive, Luigia Brandimarte normally introduces real-life examples to help students understand the physics behind the mathematical expression of it.

“That is the beauty of teaching physics”, says Luigia Brandimarte, “you can draw an endless number of examples from around you. With a glass of water on your desk, you can do a lot of things to explain fluid mechanics and visualize concepts.”

An epiphany from a dance show

When the pandemic struck and forced teaching to go online this became painfully problematic. Talking to ninety students represented by black squares on a screen made it very difficult to be interactive. After her first pandemic course in fluid mechanics in September 2020, she decided that she needed to do something different, to motivate students, keep them away from a computer screen, stimulate creativity, challenging active learning and get out of the “Zoom comfort zone”.

“A few years back, I went to see a dance show at a theatre. Seeing people dancing reminded me of waves in a river and the idea came up that I could use body movement as a teaching tool.”

Emailing the neighbour

To make something out of this resurfaced idea, Luigia Brandimarte did what any sensible person would have done, she started spamming. She sent emails to anyone she could get hold of at KTH’s neighbouring institution Stockholm University of the Arts, and eventually, her efforts paid off. She got a reply from Alisan Funk, assistant professor of circus and responsible for the bachelor programme in circus.

“We started talking on Zoom in spring 2021 and Alisan was very enthusiastic about the idea of shaping a joint pedagogical activity, it clicked between us. Alisan also brought in Benjamin Richter, a German guest lecturer at the Department of Circus, who is world-wide known for his work and research on the use of objects in circus. After developing the idea further we decided on a common activity, running over one week, at the end of the fluid mechanics course, with different learning objectives for the two groups of students, KTH fluid mechanics and SKH Circus students.”

The students becoming teachers

Forty of the ninety KTH students volunteered to take part in this activity. KTH students were split into two groups of twenty students each. Each group had different assignments and learning objectives.

"You have learned something when you can explain it to someone. Especially someone with a very different background than yours. And you have truly succeeded when they can use what you have taught them to make a performance."

The assignment for the first group of fluid mechanics students would be to teach concepts, which they had just recently learned, to the circus students. This teaching would then be the input for the circus students whose assignment was to work on one fluid mechanic concept and make a performance out of it.

On the first day of the activity, the first group of twenty KTH students met with the sixteen circus students, ten random mixed groups were formed and KTH students explained selected topics from the fluid mechanics course to the circus colleagues. Then, the circus students had three days to prepare a performance, inspired by what they had learned.

“The first day some of the fluid mechanics students came with powerpoint presentations, some came with pens and papers and sketched and some just talked to their circus partners. Some of my students got so involved that they supported the circus students also during the creative process.”

What you learn in class, should not stay in class

To exercise what one learns, it is a good practice to transport concepts learned in class to that of another reality: in this case, that of a circus performance.

On the last day of the activity, the second group of twenty KTH students were randomly allocated to a circus performance and their assignment was to interpret the performance and understand which fluid mechanic concept was visualized, write a short report on what they thought they had seen, and then to interview the circus performer to try to understand what the concept was and how he or she had moved from what they had learned on Monday to the performance on Friday.

Some performances were very visual and matched the topic, in other cases, the circus students took the creative process a step further, creating more of a challenge for the interpreting students.

“In addition to being fun, both my student groups found this exercise extremely pedagogical and inspirational, but also way more difficult than they had thought. One student commented that teaching is the most difficult job one can do. It was a new way of thinking and learning and in my opinion it worked very well.”

Inquisitive circus students and a KTH student walking on her hands

The learning objective for the circus students was to receive input that was completely new to them and unrelated to circus techniques. They worked to interpret the concepts with movement that both captured the essence of the scientific concepts while also attending to aesthetic and compositional presentation. Alisan Funk believes that “pedagogically, this kind of experience helps circus students develop strategies for interpreting the world around them through their circus practice, which will serve them as professional artists and authors of circus performance.”

Understanding and embodying the concepts was also very challenging for the first-year circus students who come to SKH for its renowned circus education. After the workshop, the circus students found the activity to be inspirational – both due to the work of interpretation and the pleasure of encountering students outside of their quotidian circus community. Luigia spent an hour discussing fluid mechanic concepts with one of the circus students who wanted to learn more, and one of the KTH students was rewarded with applause from the circus students when she started walking around on her hands.

Having had a first positive experience Luigia wants to repeat and further develop the course. She will also use videos of the performances produced this year in her future fluid mechanics classes. And although it is difficult to measure the results in terms of learning and pedagogical outcomes, Luigia Brandimarte thinks that giving students responsibility was a key factor and offering such a different learning tool challenged KTH students to move away from their standard learning context.

So what were the challenges and which recommendations can she give to others looking for someone to collaborate with?

“For us teachers, the main challenge was to find a common interest in this activity, explains Luigia Brandimarte. Both the circus teachers and I had to make sure our students would equally benefit from this exercise, which of course was supposed to be fun, but had to be also pedagogical. Talking to students, we realized that the activity was successful in its intended learning objectives and that students appreciated being challenged outside of their comfort zone.

When doing research we often cross the boundaries of disciplines to get inspiration and engage in something new and challenging, I am trying to do this also with teaching”.

Finding someone enthusiastic and identifying a common interest seems to be the way forward. In Luigia Brandimartes collaboration with Stockholm University of the Arts, ideas had to be changed and concepts reconsidered, but there was never any need to send in the clowns.

Text: Johan C Thorburn

This is the 21st  article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here: Archive

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Nov 24, 2021