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Sharing our research, 3 minutes at a time

Practice session for the 3MT. Room of students watching another student practice his 3MT presentation.

What can you teach me in 3 minutes? The learning implications of discovering multitasking neurons in the prefrontal cortex? The social impacts of neoliberal economic policies in post-Mao China? How about the nature of energy-storage limitations that hold back complete transitions to renewable resources like solar energy? What about an entire PhD thesis? Better yet, could you teach a 5th grader an entire PhD thesis in just 3 minutes?

Every year, graduate students from across McGill come together to explain their thesis research in a way that anybody can understand. The catch? They only have three minutes and one slide to do it. This is McGill’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and this year it will take place March 12th in Tanna Schuclich Hall. Every year, Teaching and Learning Services and Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies collaborate to coach over 100 graduate students in delivering a 3MT. In the 2019 competition, 18 graduate students will compete in English and French for the top prize and the chance to compete at the national level.

Originating from the University of Queensland in 2008, today over 650 universities across the world host a 3MT competition. The competition challenges graduate students to make their research accessible and understandable to a non-specialist audience (i.e., anyone not in their field), while not sacrificing communicating their methods, results, and the broader implications of their work. A panel of judges decides the winners based on how well the presenter engaged the audience, the comprehensiveness of their presentation, and their ability to communicate the research clearly and concisely.

McGill’s 3MT participants attend two or more training sessions, which include multiple opportunities for practice and peer feedback (written and oral) to hone their public speaking skills and develop their 3MT presentation. In addition to comments from fellow participants, Teaching and Learning Services staff and student employees, as well as several communication experts from across campus, provide coaching throughout the process. Each presenter is filmed delivering their 3MT and while receiving oral feedback from their peers and coaches. While many participants are apprehensive about watching themselves on video, they regularly cite reviewing these videos and the feedback as the most useful aspect of the training.

While the competition is fun and full of pithy presentations from young experts that fill the audience with hope, the students’ acquisition and mastery of knowledge mobilization (KMb) skills throughout the training is the most valuable lesson learned through 3MT. With respect to academia, KMb is the concept of sharing research widely to build awareness and enable informed action (researchimpact, 2014). The importance of decentralizing academic knowledge from the ivory tower and making it accessible to the broader public is crucial to creating a well-informed citizenry; a goal that becomes increasingly difficult in the era of foreign propaganda on Facebook and widespread distrust of traditional authorities, such as government and academia.

Beyond the 3MT, KMb has become a standard component of many research-funding applications, including SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR. Funders want the results of the research to have the maximum impact, which means sharing the results as widely as possible while maintaining the nuance and cautious certainty of academia. Science communication to a non-scientific audience, KMb by a different name, is sometimes a learning outcome for undergraduate science programs (Ferris, 2019).

Teaching and Learning Services supports several research initiatives and courses across campus to help students develop their KMb abilities. For instance, Prof. Paul Yachnin assigns his English students the task of delivering a 10-minute presentation (without notes) on whether the works of Shakespeare are still relevant to today’s society. The students participate in a modified 3-Minute Thesis workshop to prepare. Yet, the 3-Minute Thesis is just one tool that educators can use to build their students’ KMb skills; it is by no means the only initiative at McGill to promote KMb. For instance, Prof. Terry Hebert requires his pharmacology students to “translate” scientific articles into laymen terms (Xing, 2016). And students in Diane Dechief’s CCOM 314 course at the McGill Writing Centre have to record a podcast to educate Montreal high school students in science (Samuel, 2017).

In a world where the integrity of our media, academic institutions, and science as a whole are questioned, academics have an increasing responsibility to share their research with the public in a manner that is both transparent and easy to understand. Teaching and Learning Services is willing to support any instructors looking to incorporate the 3MT principles of brevity, comprehensibility, clarity, and explaining implications for broader society into their class assignments, as well as other opportunities for KMb in the classroom.

If you want to see knowledge mobilization in action, be sure to attend the 3MT finals this year!

Photo credit: Gabriel Helefant

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