By Published: Oct. 28, 2019

One goal is to increase the diversity of STEM fields by emphasizing that ‘we need to stop trying to get girls to act like boys in order to be part of the math world’

Under-represented students in STEM are about to get a leg up, thanks to a new project merging dance and technology from the University of Colorado Boulder and New York University.


Michelle Ellsworth, Ben Shapiro and Edd Taylor

The cross-disciplinary project, which was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will examine how to integrate machine learning, data science and physical computing in the context of movement-based learning to expand the scope and relevance of creative computing into established dance practices. 

“Cross-disciplinary collaborations open up many doors you wouldn’t expect,” said Michelle Ellsworth, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance and interim director for the Center for Media Arts and Performance in the university's ATLAS Institute. 

On the team are Ben Shapiro, assistant professor of computer science at CU Boulder, Ellsworth and Edd Taylor, assistant professor in STEM education, who also has a background in cheerleading. Mary West, doctoral student in computer science with experience as a performance artist, is also part of the team.

“What’s unique is that none of us has just one neighborhood of expertise. We’re not just the dancer, the education specialist,” Ellsworth said. 

“Rather than making the existing clubhouse of computer science more friendly, (we sought) to build a new kind of clubhouse which goes to the dancers’ space, to the dance studio. It’s tapping into their existing interest and knowledge. To have dancers and cheerleaders feel they legitimately and inherently have access.”


An image from a performance-art piece by Michelle Ellsworth called "Post Verbal Social Network," which was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, typifies the kind of transdisciplinary work she does. That work, she said, shows what a "physically productive, non-language based, non-mediated, pre-industrial, 3D dance/communication looks and feels like.” Photo by Nicholas Caputo. At the top of the page is an image of student Emily Daub, who fuses dance and technology. Photo courtesy of ATLAS Institute.

The research project, which is titled Integrating Physical Computing and Data Science in Movement Based Learning, will focus on the design of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning-environments for an underrepresented group: female high school students who are dancers or cheerleaders in Colorado and New York. 

Working with a step team, two cheerleading teams and the New York City nonprofit, STEM From Dance, researchers will explore how established practices and knowledge of dance can support learning about computing.

“This is about finding ways to connect computer science and education with dance and cheerleading,” Shapiro said. 

“Young women who are dancers or cheerleaders are members of the same population that have been for many years systematically excluded from the field of computer science. The vision for this project is to ask what are the ways we can bring computer science to dance and cheerleading. The idea is to use technology to improve your athletic skills or enhance your performances. For example, costumes that react to movement.”

As part of the project, students will create computing systems with programmable electronics worn on the body (physical computing) and use those systems to create statistical models of movement and gesture (data science and machine learning), and then apply the models in a “digital experiential learning environment,” or a digital environment where students learn by doing.

Working closely with physical education teachers and participating students, researchers will produce design principles, curricula, new educational technologies and comparative analyses.

Some of the questions the research team will address include:  

  • How can computing be leveraged to build expertise in dance and cheerleading?
  • How can dance and cheerleading be leveraged to build expertise in computing?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities of integrating computing into physical education practices?

The research will be conducted in three parts. Phase one will consist of conducting interviews and observations at three sites—New York and two locations in Colorado. Phase two involves design sessions with physical educators and computing educators to better understand how physical movement and computing can complement both. Phase three will entail piloting the integrated physical education and computing curricula across the three sites. 

“Something I think about is identity,” Taylor said. “The argument is that we need to stop trying to get girls to act like boys in order to be part of the math world. We’re not asking them to do things they would not normally do or are interested in. By integrating this type of work within a context they are confident in and that is consistent with their identity has some interesting identity play and a lot of cool learning.”