‘Oh, My God, Where Is This Going?’ When Computer-Science Majors Take Improv

Northeastern University forces students to come out of their shells and exercise creative play in front of classmates before getting their diploma

Like all computer-science majors at Northeastern, Mr. Mullaney was required to take a course in theater and improv. And, like others, “I was afraid,” he said. He fought off anxiety by trying not to think about it outside of class.

Many computer-science types say they would rather work at a screen than chat face to face. Others hate drawing attention to themselves. In the improv class, “The Eloquent Presenter,” computer-science majors not only cozy up with peers, but work in groups and take turns in the spotlight.

.. The class is a way to “robot-proof” computer-science majors, helping them sharpen uniquely human skills, said Joseph E. Aoun, the university president. Empathy, creativity and teamwork help students exercise their competitive advantage over machines in the era of artificial intelligence

.. Caitlin Wang, a junior also majoring in computer science, likes to plan and be prepared, she said, which makes improvising scary: “I don’t know what’ll happen, what I’ll say, or how people will react,” Ms. Wang said.

.. Like other tough courses, this one has paid dividends for some alumni.

Tiffany Seeber, class of 2016, said when she took it everybody had to assemble themselves into a human Rube Goldberg machine. The touch of an arm would set another person’s leg in motion, and the leg would initiate the movement of someone pretending to turn a wheel. “I couldn’t figure out how this was going to relate to what I was going to be doing full-time,” she said.

Ms. Seeber, now a software engineer at Uber, sometimes strikes a “power pose” before presentations—shoulders back, chested elongated, weight evenly distributed—a skill she learned in the class. When speaking, she walks slowly from side to side, to engage more people in the audience.

I don’t know any software engineer that doesn’t have to do presentations,” she said.

.. Over time, she learned about using the voice’s volume and pitch, as well as being more comfortable conversing about a subject without being an expert. She had to argue for the legitimacy of astrological signs, a stretch for any computer-science major.“It certainly would have been a lot worse if nobody laughed,” she said.