Huntsville Systems Engineer Walks into a Bar….

Improv workshops create fusion of math, physics, social sciences and communication arts. Photos by Isabel Castaneda and David Heenan, UAH

Synopsis of a feature by Katherine MacGilvray for UAH News

Faculty members from the University of Alabama in Huntsville departments of Industrial and Systems Engineering & Engineering Management, Music and Psychology have received two grants totaling $74,000 through the NASA Systems Engineering Research Consortium, with funding by the Office of the Chief Engineer, for a collaboration to harness the creative energy of improvisational theater. Think Wernher von Braun joins Saturday Night Live.

The magic began when Bryan Mesmer, a UAH systems engineering professor, and Amy Guerin, a UAH theater professor, recruited an improve theater veteran to lead a summer workshop for engineers attending a NASA Cost and Schedule Symposium in Houston.

Participants in this workshop included UAH systems engineering and theater students, a NASA management analyst, Rob Moreland, and a Marshall Space Flight Center Systems engineer, Mike Watson.

The workshop leader was Dan Friedrich, CEO of a Chicago software company who also had Chicago improv creds. He studied at the Improv Olympic and graduated from the Conservatory of The Second City, the training center for the famous Chicago improv troupe that produced many of the alumni of Saturday Night Live.

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Friedrich, Mesmer and UAH psychology professor Kristin Weger recruited symposium attendees to participate in a few improv training sessions, and then Friedrich led them in a performance to initiate a problem-solving dialogue, “The NASA Milestones Live at the Apollo!”

Friedrich classifies his workshop as “Intentional Improv,” harnessing the power of improv to do scenes and shows about significant subjects.

“By day, I run a software company with clients like NASA,” says Friedrich, “but, by night, I write, perform and direct improvisational sketch comedy like ‘Drones, Clones, and Phones: I Know What You Did Last Summer.’”

“Any project manager can relate to the issue of going over budget and over schedule,” says Mesmer. “Attendees at the symposium already recognized that a lot of the methods they use are flawed. So we try to tease out these hidden truths through improv.” They found that people were able to lighten up and could better identify problems by making jokes about those problems.

Amanda Banks, an undergraduate in systems engineering, was recording the audience members’ reactions. Banks is reviewing the footage and creating a YouTube trailer to position the research. “The focus isn’t these actors making light of the problem,” Mesmer explains. “It’s not the laugh we’re looking for, but the nugget of information that gets the laugh.”

Well, you guessed it. These engineers were serious about this. Their objective: “to address factors leading to issues, including budgeting and scheduling, that NASA leadership frequently encounters.”

Based on those results, feedback from NASA and that first workshop, project participants say they will now develop a template for a follow-up phase of two workshops, during which students will work with systems engineers and project managers at Marshall to put together a pilot performance before an anticipated return to the next-scheduled Cost and Schedules Symposium.

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