This Professor Thinks STEM Education is a Laughing Matter

Pete LudovicePete Ludovice has always been pretty explosive.

He admits he even ‘blew up’ his lab as a grad student teaching polymer science at MIT.

Today, he’s a professor at Georgia Tech who works on computer simulations of polymers, which is a lot safer. But it’s what he does outside the classroom – and how he uses his unique talents to promote STEM education – that makes him incendiary.

He has a knack for lampooning science (and the ‘very serious’ people who do science) in a way that makes it fun and accessible. If you’re at one of his lectures, taking part in his research, listening to his radio show, downloading his podcast, or even going to one of his stand-up gigs you’ll be learning about science and technology…you just won’t realize it because you’ll be having so much fun.

His goal is to attract more young people to science and technology through humor, and he even won a grant to study the use of humor in engineering education. It’s easy to see that he’s serious about STEM education…even when he’s not acting that way.

1. Tell me about yourself

I was born in Des Plaines, IL; the home of McDonald’s store #1. One of eight children, I was a very shy as a child until I started getting into sketch comedy in the seventh grade. My wife Jennifer and I met through a dating service even before the Internet was developed. We have two kids, and I am limited to a specified number of jokes per week at home due to a recent plea agreement. I started doing comedy on stage in January 2004 and since then have performed coast to coast and in Europe and have worked to apply humor to technical communication, education, and innovation.

2. The average person may not ordinarily associate science with comedy, but you make it seem natural. How does humor influence your research and teaching?

I believe that the connection between comedy and research is a two-way street. Comedy and research actually influence each other. Recent efforts to improve the convergence of polymer simulations prompted me to manipulate the kinetic energy to increase the speed at which the polymer system traversed conformation space. We used the same approach to increasing the speed at which we traversed idea space. However, instead of manipulating the kinetic energy, we manipulated the creative energy with humorous improvisation. Humor also helps to engage people in discussions of science and technology. Humor puts people in a better mood to learn science and engineering, but contrary to what many people believe, a majority of studies do not indicate that humor in the classroom improves learning outcomes. Simply mixing humor with education is often distracting. It must be combined in the proper way to be effective and this is the goal of our current National Science Foundation grant on the use of humor to improve engineering education.

Humor just enters my teaching naturally. It certainly helps when you teach a technical class at 8 am. Currently, our students are of the Millennial Generation. They respect authority more than previous generations, but they also expect authority figures to behave in a traditional manner. This means they are sometimes shocked by an authority figure that tells jokes. I found this out when I tried to inject humor into a summer biostatistics institute at Emory University sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The chairman of the Emory Dept. of Biostatistics was pleased, but the students were not comfortable. I attributed this to the attitudes of the Millennial Generation in my report.


3. You seem to have a real passion for STEM education. Do you do outreach into the k12 schools as well?

Yes, I do a PG version of my one-man show “Feel the Power of the Dork Side” for middle and High schools. I am trying to align it with the Next Generation Science Standards and Statewide STEM curricula. This will allow me to substitute it for part of the STEM curriculum at school assemblies.

[Editor’s Note: Pete is also involved in a program called Direct to Discovery, which is a partnership between Georgia Tech and teachers in Barrow County, Georgia. It involves using digital media and interactive TV to enhance student engagement in STEM. See the video below.]

4. What do your colleagues think about your unique approach to science?

Some of my colleagues think it is a good thing because science and technology could benefit from a bit of humor. Others think humor has no place in science and technology.

There is always a risk of not being taken seriously when you mix two things together that have not normally been associated with each other. Luckily part of my research is on the application of humor to improve technical education and innovation. There are plenty of people who don’t take this humor application seriously, but I take some encouragement from others. Bill Cosby wrote his doctoral thesis on the value of humorous cartoons in teaching young children. When I asked him if humor could help improve technical education, his answer was “Absolutely.” I was recently introduced to a physician, actor, and comedian Ken Jeong by Lew Lefton, of the School of Mathematics, and he told us that humor made him a more successful physician.

5. What are you trying to accomplish through your science outreach?

Convincing people that science and engineering are actually creative pursuits may get more people interested in these areas. We use humor to sell people beer and snack foods with Super Bowl commercials. Why can’t it be used to engage them in the study and discussion of science and technology?

I’ll know I’ve been successful when there is an observable increase in the number of young people attracted to work in science and technology because of humor. It sounds far-fetched, but the television show “Crime Scene Investigators” (CSI) produced a significant increase in students majoring in analytical and forensic chemistry. For many years my fellow science & engineering comedians and I have been doing screen tests and auditions for funny science shows on The Discovery Channel, the History Channel, National Geographic and the Discovery International. They never seem to get picked up by the networks. The Discovery Channel tried to reproduce “Myth Busters” with real engineers, and I was one of the finalists to host this show called “Smash Lab.” They selected other hosts for the show, which only lasted two seasons. It seems it is easier to teach special effects experts how to do a decent control experiment than it is to teach engineers how to be funny and engaging.

6. How has your career been impacted by your comedy?

It has taken it in bizarre directions that I never would have anticipated. I started doing comedy because I like to laugh, and I like to make other people laugh. Then I thought there might be some overlap between comedy and my career in education and research. While some colleagues thought I was crazy, I persisted. When stand-up comedy is applied to technical areas it very quickly improves teaching and educational outreach. It made me realize all good comedy is somewhat educational, but it is usually educational in a sociological or political context. There is no reason that humor can’t be used to make science and technology more accessible to both technical and non-technical audiences. As such I am one of the few people that do comedy with technical slides. At first, I thought I was alone in this until met others of my kind at science conventions and television auditions. My comedy work has also moved my research in the direction of using improvisation to catalyze technical innovation and assembling a student research project on characterizing humor. The student project is in collaboration with Lew Lefton from math, entitled the “Humor Genome Project,” and it is part of Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program. Since so few people work in this area, I now get offers from all over the world to speak on the role of humor in technical education.

7. Comedy can be risky. Have you ever been too edgy or taken things too far?

Finding the edge is very tough and very audience dependent. All comedians have stories of bad sets where they misjudged the audience. I was once too nerdy for a Florida Club audience, and have been too edgy for Tech audiences. I suspect I don’t get asked to do comedy by the Alumni Association anymore despite the fact the many alumni come to see me on the road. I was the after dinner entertainment one night when former Athletic Director Dan Radakovich was the before-dinner speaker. Dan talked about the new north end zone stands, and I asked the members of the alumni association board who had ever sat in the upper deck of the north end zone. After nobody in the audience raised their hands, I said: “Of course not, you all have good football tickets; the only people that sit in the north end zone stands are visitors, and faculty & staff on faculty/staff appreciation night.” It was a good segue to jokes all academics make about the disparity of resources between athletics and certain educational programs. The only difference is, I make them in front of larger audiences. Dan was a good sport about it and agreed to appear on my radio show after the event.

8. What advice do you have for researchers who want to use humor, but may be afraid to try?

Humor in the classroom is like an American speaking French in Paris; even if it is not very good, the effort is appreciated. Humor requires a thick skin, but researchers already have a thick skin. If your joke isn’t funny, nobody laughs, but you can forget about that in short order. If your proposal is not good, several people write down why it sucks, add a summary of the criticism and send it to you with the official notice that it sucks.* Then your program director calls or emails to make sure that you read all the criticism, and reminds you to call if you have any questions about why everyone thought your proposal sucked.

****While I have never seen the word “Sucks” in a peer review, we all know that is really what they’re thinking.

9. Tell me about your work as Director of the Georgia Tech Center for Academic Enrichment.

The Center for Academic Enrichment works to enrich the academic experience with cool stuff that happens outside the normal classroom experience. It has a very dedicated staff that addresses the freshman transition with our Freshman Seminar, undergraduate research and innovation, elite fellowships and student-faculty interaction through the Think Big program. We’re trying to develop new enrichment programs with the same passion and imagination that our students approach their own design and innovation projects. Recently we replaced our First-Year Reading with an on-line community and selected shorter reading designed to help students build their academic identity. This approach called “Project One” might better engage the typical Tech student. Last year the undergraduate InVenture Prize Competition live audience overflowed the Ferst Center, which is more than I could say for the times I opened for Last Comic Standing winners Dat Phan, and Josh Blue at that venue. Despite being the only school, other than Harvard, to have back to back Rhodes and Marshall scholars in the past two years, our fellowship advisors stress that the application process helps you grow as a professional regardless of any award you may apply for or win.

10. Describe the ‘Living, Learning Community’ concept and how you use it to combine humor, education, communication and innovation at Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech is committed to increasing our involvement with Living-Learning Communities (LLCs), but the Think Big program is actually a themed housing program with no for-credit component (co-curricular). It was developed to instill the importance of life-long learning in our students independent of course credit. For several years I directed a Think Big program on Applied Humor. Other co-curricular programs exist on campus, such as the Freshman Experience program. Curricular LLCs on campus include The Honors ProgramGrand Challenges, and the President Scholar Program. The value of such LLCs is to mix classes that address academic skills with residential programs in which faculty and staff interact with students to teach soft skills including life-long learning, ethics, networking, understanding global impact and other skills. These skills are required by many accreditation agencies such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) that accredits Georgia Tech’s engineering programs.

11. What’s next for you?

I am working on a book about popular science and technology that uses humor in prose, the same way I use it in stand-up. I’m planning on using the witty first-person narrative style that Tina Fay used in her recent book “Bossy Pants”.

——–

Additional Resources:

  • Geekapalooza Website
  • Georgia Tech students and faculty team up with other Atlanta nerd comedians to prove that nerds can be funny, not just funny-looking.
  • Consilience Podcast
  • A humorous podcast on the intersection of science and the humanities with Pete and Charlie Bennett from the Georgia Tech Library

———-

Video Credits:

  • Video 1 – Stand-up routine – courtesy of Pete Ludovice
  • Video 2 – Direct to Discovery Interview – courtesy of Barrow County Public Schools

(This piece was originally posted to my LinkedIn blog October 8, 2014)

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