Three UNM students were sick of analyzing graphs, watching PowerPoint presentations and reading scientific papers last semester. So instead, they decided to visualize scientific data through dance.

“With the dance, it’s visual … for people who learn by seeing,” said biology and dance student Sarah Hogland. “And it’s kinesthetic as well, for people who learn by moving and doing. I feel like it could be a really great tool for learning about scientific processes that kind of tend to go over people’s heads.”

Hogland, Elliott Miller and Louie Roccato were first exposed to dance and theater arts combined with biology in an ecology class last semester, in which the teacher asked students to perform skits to remember information.

“It’s funny because that’s the information that I still remember,” Hogland said. “Moving and using muscle intelligences solidified this information much more than studying notes. I had always thought it would be cool to integrate the two, but that was the first time I felt like it was OK and people would be interested in something like that.”

The students learned about a data visualization competition based in Canada and decided to independently start a dance and biology data visualization project to submit to the competition. They read about UNM researchers online and chose to replicate the foraging patterns of ants, which doctoral candidate Tatiana Paz Flanagan is researching.

“I’ve definitely gotten a lot of blank stares originally and then people will say, ‘So you’re just going to walk around like an ant?’ No, not quite,” Hogland said. “Most people think biology and dance are completely different areas, so I think they’re just very curious about what the project looks like because I don’t think they can imagine it by themselves.”

Miller said he and the other two students worked with Flanagan, who had computer simulations of the ants’ patterns, to learn more about the subject. They then came up with choreography.

“You kind of have to make each piece of choreography — which in this case is each a piece of the different foraging patterns — you have to make each one a probability, like you’re going to have an X percent chance of getting this choreography … so it’s like setting rules to this free-form dance,” Miller said.

Miller only started dancing one-and-a-half years ago when he had to take ballroom dancing for a physical education requirement. He said he fell in love immediately, and although the other dancers in the project have more experience, he is still participating.

“I’ve got the biological side covered pretty well, but when it comes to the dance side, I don’t think I could do it alone,” Miller said.

Hogland said the academic scientific community does not typically use creative techniques for learning.

“I feel like there’s this weird, jaded perspective on academia, and especially in sciences, everything has to be very logical, very rational, even if you’re dealing with these complex systems that are beautiful — like they create fractals, for God’s sake,” Hogland said. “I think the sciences lose sight of this humanistic quality that you can use to supplement learning.”