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Students Get an Intersection of Performance Art and Science with “Blue Man Group”
On a windy December day, with final exams and winter break just around the corner, the 500 undergraduate students in Professor Bradley Pentelute’s Course 5.111 (Principles of Chemical Science) class were treated to an afternoon at the theater — a performance of “Blue Man Group” at Boston’s Charles Playhouse — courtesy of Pentelute and the MIT Office of the First Year.
Besides the excitement of the theater, it was the practical application of chemical principles in the Blue Man Group’s performance that motivated Pentelute to organize and fund this outing. The MIT Office of the First Year was pleased to partner with him in offering a chance for first-year students to engage with one another outside the classroom. They provided funding for 300 tickets and T passes for all the students.
“By observing the use of specialized paints and materials in the show, students gain a deeper understanding of how chemistry intersects with creative expression,” explains Pentelute. “This unique experience is inspired by our discussions on the chemistry of pigments and the role of chemistry in everyday life, aiming to bridge theoretical knowledge with real-world applications. The visit was an engaging opportunity to enhance our learning and foster a sense of community within our class.”
Established in 1995, “Blue Man Group” has been a beloved part of Boston’s theater district. This euphoric, multi-sensory performance features three silent “Blue Men” who communicate with the audience and each other through art, music, comedy, and non-verbal cues. The characters are other-worldly in their innocence, appearing mystified by the audience and ordinary objects. Each show is unique, as the Blue Men invite members of the audience on stage, create music with instruments made from construction and plumbing materials, and, most notably, use drums covered in liquid paint that splashes over everything — and everyone — in the Poncho Zone.
The Charles Playhouse can seat up to 500 people, so for this particular show, the entire audience consisted of MIT undergraduate students. Any tickets not used by the 5.111 students were offered to first-generation first-year students. This experience proved to be an exciting demonstration of how general chemistry concepts can be applied and a testament to the camaraderie among undergraduate students.
Catherine Hazard, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and the teaching assistant for 5.111, was among the many attendees thrilled to witness science in action at the theater.
“The use of brightly colored oil paints, which is a trademark of the show, directly represents chemical structures and crystal field theory concepts we covered in class,” Hazard explains. “We learned about how energy splitting of d orbitals affects the color of different inorganic transition metal complexes, as well as how chemicals like waxes, resins, polymers, and stabilizers give the oil paint the right consistency for the performances. The event was a fun way to bring together all the lessons we learned before we headed into a week of finals.”
The Office of the First Year strives to provide excellent services and programs that encourage student exploration, access to opportunities, and promote academic success and personal development for undergraduate students. Programs and experiences like this one enhance and support undergraduate education at MIT.
Pentelute joined the MIT faculty in 2011. His research group in the Department of Chemistry focuses on developing new protein modification chemistries, adapting nature’s mechanisms for efficient macromolecule delivery into cells, creating flow technologies for fast biopolymer production, and discovering peptide binders for proteins.