BME students get a lesson in improvisation from theater group

By: Lily Levin

The BME undergraduate class of 2020 at Cornell University got a lesson in improvisation in a workshop presented to a BME 4080 class on September 30th in Weill Hall. Taught by Professor James Antaki, BME 4080 is the undergraduate capstone design course leading students in a year-long design project representing the culmination of their four years at Cornell. In this special improvisation workshop, students were pushed to the edges of their comfort zones to learn a little bit more about themselves, their peers, and problem solving through improv techniques.

students standing in a circle in improv class
Steel City Improv's Justin Zell (center) introduces BME 4080 students to the improv workshop concepts.

The guest of the afternoon was Steel City Improv Theater (SCIT)'s Justin Zell, who has been in the business for over 20 years and serves as workshop facilitator. SCIT is a group that both performs comedy shows and runs improv classes on “applied improvisation” in order to teach people “to deal with the unexpected in this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we live in.” Such a world this is for bright, young, BME majors at Cornell.

At the outset, Zell instructed the group of over seventy students that there would be “no trust falls, nobody has to be funny; all you have to do is be truthful and silly.” The following two hours consisted of students being truthful and most of all, silly.

An opening ice-breaker instructed students to move around the room in response to commands like 'walk' and 'stop'. Then the instructions were reversed; when instructed to ‘walk’ students actually needed to stop walking, and vice versa, when instructed to ‘stop’ students needed to start walking. Zell used this exercise to set the tone of the workshop; to think outside of the box and to make mistakes unapologetically.

The rest of the afternoon consisted of activities done in rotating groups and partnerships, including a “Yes, And,” exercise in which partners would mirror each others’ movements and add onto partners' ideas, an activity where students came up with ways of solving a problem with an item that normally would not be a solution, a brainstorming activity to list seven disjointed-yet-connected topics, and an exercise to consider many different responses in an acting-on-the-spot scenario.

Takeaway ideas from the workshop were: “the first thought in your mind is normally the most boring,” “it's O.K. to make mistakes,” “the best ideas come from building on others,” and “you can solve any problem with any solution.” These are all important revelations that students can apply not only toward their year-long project, but also toward life in general.

students in a workshop activity
BME 4080 students participate in a small group improvisation activity.

Afterwards, Prof. Antaki polled students on their feedback and experience. A large majority of students believed that the workshop was a valuable lesson in taking a step outside of their comfort zones. Additionally, they agreed with the notion that the principles of improvisation will help them be more creative and effective inventors/engineers.

As workshop facilitator, Justin Zell added, “I had a great time with [this] class. Professor Antaki always 'sets the table' well before I arrive by opening up his students to the principles of improvisation that we explore in the session.  I love working with BME students. They never cease to amaze me with their inventiveness once they are warmed up and feel safe to try new things without fear of failure or judgment. This, in my humble opinion, is the next frontier in business now that we are in the Information Age. People need practice 'Yes Anding' ideas without judging themselves or others.”

Now, a couple weeks after the improv workshop, the most prevalent thoughts in my mind from that day are the laughter and silliness that was present in the room, as well as the valuable lessons learned. My peers echo this sentiment, and are hopeful that even as we leave to graduate in the spring, that this improvisation program will return next fall to pass on its insights and fun to the BME Class of 2021.

Students in the BME Masters of Engineering (M.Eng.)  program also got to experience the workshop during Zell's visit.

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