Scientists are not generally required to display prowess in modern dance, but Roni Zohar of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s science teaching department recently showed her moves in an award-winning science/dance video.

The video by this Israeli PhD placed first in the social-sciences category of the “Dance your PhD” contest held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine, Science.

The competition, now in its 11th year, asks doctoral students and former students to describe their thesis topics through dance. It is judged in four categories – biology, physics, chemistry and social sciences – by a panel of judges that includes scientists and artists.

Dance actually is an integral part of Zohar’s research conducted under the guidance of Prof. Bat Sheva Eylon of the Weizmann’s science teaching department and Prof. Dor Abrahamson of the University of California at Berkeley. She investigates ways of using movement to teach high school students basic concepts in physics.

Zohar called her video “Movements as a Door for Learning Physics Concepts – Integrating Embodied Pedagogy in Teaching.”

In the eight-and-a-half-minute video, Zohar joins dancers in the bubble atop Weizmann’s particle accelerator for a performance showing concepts such as gravity and friction; and 10th-graders practice a Feldenkrais exercise and field activities to learn concepts such as group velocity and balance.

“When the learning material is not just on the board, it helps us to understand that these rules were not useless discoveries, but are a part of the world around us. Experiencing them reduces the fear of learning,” explains one of the students at the end of the video.

Dr. Roni Zohar of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Photo: courtesy

“We found a significant improvement in the understanding of the learning material,” Zohar said. “Understanding through the body preceded an understanding that was expressed verbally.”

Zohar will soon begin postdoctoral research into the phenomenon of movement in learning at the Weizmann Institute under the guidance of Prof. Ehud Ahissar of the neurobiology department and Prof. Atan Gross of the biological regulation department.

Dance has long been a part of Zohar’s life. She studied dance in the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance at the same time as she was earning her undergraduate degree in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Her Master of Science degree in neurobiology focused on motor control. Today, in addition to training science teachers through the Ministry of Education, Zohar teaches classes in movement and improvisation. And this year, for the first time, she is leading a course on movement, science and learning at the Feinberg Graduate School, the academic arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Zohar was assisted in creating her video by a choreographer, Rotem Lev, and a moviemaker and editor Yael Leibovitz-Zand. Her research and her video project are supported by the Maurice and Ilse Katz Center for Science Teaching; the Trump Foundation; the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations; and the Sandy Wall Endowment Fund for Science Teaching.