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“Give Me Every Idea You Have”: Building with Improvisation in Engineering Education

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Communication as Performance

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Stephanie Pulford Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching (CELT) Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Stephanie Pulford is an instructional consultant and research scientist within University of Washington’s Center for Engineering Teaching & Learning, where she has coordinated the Engineering Writing & Communication Development Program. Dr. Pulford’s professional background in engineering includes a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, an M.S. in Engineering Mechanics, and a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering as well as industry experience as an aircraft engineer. Her research and professional interests include faculty development, innovations in engineering communication education, engineering student learning motivation, and narrative structure in technical communication.

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Cibele V. Falkenberg Auburn University

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Dr. Cibele V. Falkenberg is a Research Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Auburn University.

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Improvisational theatre, or improv, is commonly associated with live comedy, but this is only the most visible facet of the well-established tradition of improvisational performance training in theatre pedagogy. Naturally, practicing improv sharpens one’s communication, particularly extemporaneous speaking. It has also been shown to confer a number of transferable skills and habits of mind. Improv training and practice enhances creativity, confidence, focus, and interpersonal perceptiveness. Improv activities help people to take productive risks. Moreover, improvisational ensemble work promotes inclusion, acceptance, trust and collaboration—interpersonal skills that are vital to today’s engineer.

Recently, improv training has been used among engineering and science practitioners to great effect. These pioneering enactments of improvisatory pedagogy in STEM show explicitly that improvisatory skills can indeed be learned and practiced deliberately, whether or not the learner has any formal theatrical training or inclination. Yet little guidance or background literature exists for an engineering educator who would like to incorporate improvisatory concepts into their teaching and class designs.

In this exploratory paper, we provide an overview of improvisation techniques and concepts that are relevant to engineering education. These concepts are drawn from praxis literature and traditions in theatre and comedy. To illustrate these concepts, we profile the experiences and practices of five different educators who apply elements of improvisation in their classrooms. We analyze themes across the improvisational educators’ narratives, and highlight both techniques for improvisational teaching and lessons from practice. Based on this analysis, we offer recommendations and future work towards better establishing improvisational techniques in engineering education. Our objective is to make improvisational pedagogy visible, accessible, and feasible to engineering educators.

Pulford, S., & Falkenberg, C. V. (2016, June), “Give Me Every Idea You Have”: Building with Improvisation in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26241

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