Three image collage: Left: Actors on a stage. Middle: Rocket blasting off. Right: People in a technology field talking.

Transdisciplinary workshops bring together a fusion of math, physics, social sciences, and communication arts.

Faculty members from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) departments of Industrial and Systems Engineering & Engineering Management, Music, and Psychology have received two grants totaling $74 thousand through the NASA Systems Engineering Research Consortium, with funding by the Office of the Chief Engineer, for a collaboration that aims to help organizations identify community concerns, and maybe enjoy a laugh or two along the way.

Dr. Bryan Mesmer, an assistant professor in the UAH Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, regularly works with Rob Moreland, a NASA management analyst in the Office of the Chief Engineer, to address factors leading to issues, including budgeting and scheduling, that NASA leadership frequently encounters. Moreland became particularly interested in identifying what he calls the “hidden truths” that are at the heart of stakeholder concerns. Dr. Mesmer saw an opportunity.

“There’s been a big movement in the systems engineering world recently, both in education and in practicing, toward being more transdisciplinary,” he says. “It’s not just math and physics, it’s also social sciences and communication arts,” he explains.

Dr. Mesmer reached out to Amy Guerin, an Assistant Professor in the Theatre Program, and Dr. Kristin Weger, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, and together they developed a workshop that uses improv theater techniques to identify and address common challenges faced by NASA’s estimating and analysis community.

“The Truth is Funny: Using Theater and Comedic Tools to Elicit Issues within Project Management and Systems Engineering” will enter its second phase this summer.

The first phase of the project began in the spring of 2019 when Dr. Mesmer and Guerin invited Dan Friedrich to lead a workshop at UAH on what he calls “Intentional Improv,” harnessing the organic in-the-moment power of improv to do scenes and shows about significant subjects. Friedrich describes his eclectic background this way: “By day, I run a software company with clients like NASA, but, by night, I write, perform, and direct improvisational sketch comedy like ‘Drones, Clones, and Phones: I Know What You Did Last Summer.’”

Friedrich is steeped in the Chicago Improv community, having studied at the Improv Olympic under legends like Del Close, and graduated from the Conservatory of The Second City, a premier improvisational comedy troupe notable for launching the careers of many famous actors, including Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Tina Fey (one of Friedrich’s mentors), Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert. Participants in this summer workshop included UAH systems engineering and theater students, as well as Moreland and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Systems Engineer, Mike Watson.

Last August the workshop participants attended the NASA Cost and Schedule Symposium in Houston to address real-life scenarios. Friedrich, Dr. Mesmer, and Weger recruited symposium-goers 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!”

“Any project manager can relate to the issue of going over budget and over schedule,” says Dr. 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.

“This is why something like Forum Theatre, which was designed to go into communities and solve problems, is so useful,” says Guerin.

Forum Theatre is a theory and practice developed by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal and relates to actively involving audience members, who Boal called “spect-actors,” in a stage performance to empower them and encourage them to participate in problem solving.

Guerin, who trains theatre students participating in the project in Boal’s technique, hopes they will find that it proves a powerful tool to elicit honest responses from the NASA community that result in workable solutions. “And they’re finding ways to engage in their communities so when they go out into the world to do work, it may not be necessary that they only have to do traditional theatre work,” says Guerin. “They may discover that they want to be a community organizer, that they want to advocate for change within a community. And now they have a theatrical tool to use.”

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

Students in the psychology department, under the direction of Weger, are responsible for setting up the experiment that stands behind the improv, including formulating a standardized and controlled study and designing a questionnaire for the audience. Lisa Matsuyama, a first year student in the Industrial Organizational Psychology master’s program, is currently analyzing that data.

Based on those results and feedback from NASA, and the first workshop using Intentional Improv, project participants will develop a template for their Forum Theatre Workshop. The follow-up phase calls for 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.

“What’s interesting about this project is it’s really dependent on all three disciplines working together,” says Dr. Mesmer. “Without one of them, it falls apart.”



Dr. Bryan Mesmer

Dr. Kristin Weger

Amy Guerin
256.824.2360 Russ Nelson