September 26, 2006
For immediate release
UC Santa Barbara doctoral student Jatila van der Veen of the Gevirtz School won a First Place Award for a groundbreaking paper drawing fascinating parallels between physics and ritual dance at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). van der Veen’s paper, an invited talk entitled “Physicists and Firewalkers: The Co-construction of Community Identity through Narratives in Ritual Performances,” won First Prize in Excellence in the Combined Education and the General and Interdisciplinary Sections of the General Student Paper Competition.
van der Veen’s paper examines how narratives not only reinforce a community’s structure but can also at times be used as a means to challenge those structures. The paper explores the typical narrative told at physics conferences, generally the “lone hero” story described by Barbara Johnstone (1993). The heroes are usually the narrator’s thesis advisor, or one of the “icons” of the physics community, mostly male. Such stories can unconsciously maintain the traditional male hierarchy in physics. On the other hand, the Nestinarstvo ritual in Bulgaria, which concludes with the dancers walking on hot embers, is an example of an enacted narrative. Like the spoken hero-story narrative of physics, the Nestinarstvo ritual serves to strengthen the sense of community culture, but it is also an opportunity for transformation and change for the community as a whole. van der Veen argues that the usefulness for physicists, and particularly for physics educators, in examining the power of narratives is to understand the psychological role that “hero stories” play in shaping students’ attitudes towards themselves as potential members of the science community.
van der Veen’s Ph.D. in Physics Education (Professor Jenny Cook-Gumperz, advisor) is the first interdisciplinary doctorate at UCSB between the Physics Department and the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, with committee members in both departments. Her dissertation, entitled “Aesthetic Physics Education: Towards an Integrated Curriculum of Physics and Fine Arts,” explores the hypothesis that if people in physics see similarities between physics and dance or music, why can't we tap into this natural connection as a way to teach physics in a more “human” way through people’s natural affinities for the performing arts?
van der Veen, one of the original members of the Remote Access Astronomy Project (directed by Professor Philip Lubin), one of the first robotic telescopes for education in the country, taught physics in high school for 10 years, and as a lecturer at UCSB for 4 years before beginning her Ph.D. program. This year her studies are funded by the Planck Explorer Mission, a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), to write an introductory college curriculum based on symmetry and the conservation laws, incorporating elements of cosmology, as the physics portion of her dissertation. The other portion is to link physics to dance and music, as another “language” with which to understand the natural world, and to see mathematics as the language of nature.
van Der Veen has also dance all her life, and is particularly enthused about ethnic dance. Currently, her areas of focus are Egypt and the folk dances of the Middle East and Bulgarian and Macedonian dance. She performs with the UCSB Middle East Ensemble and the Oak Park Village Dancers.
[Jatila van der Veen is available for interviews; contact George Yatchisin at 805 893 5789.]