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Building Professional Communication Skills in Microbiology

Karen Sullivan, Instructor of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

BIOL 3116 Students practice their presentations in the BASC CxC Studio, September 2008
Students will work in pairs to conduct three experiments and present their results to the class using PowerPoint software. The presentations will offer details on the materials and methods used, the goals of each experiment, an analysis of results within the context of expected results, lessons learned, and the global relevance of the experiments.

"In order for students to effectively present information to their peers, they are required to learn the information in a far more comprehensive way than needed to successfully complete the assigned laboratory experiments. By creating and executing 3 PowerPoint presentations, which include procedures, diagrams, results and explanations of those results, they learn and understand the information on a much deeper level and are far more likely to retain that information long term. Students are offered a unique opportunity to justify the procedural decisions they've made, to contextualize the relevance of their stand-alone experiment within the larger field of microbiology, to analyze the validity of their results, and to reflect on future best-practices."

– Karen Sullivan, LSU Instructor of Biological Sciences, explores the benefits of student presentations in her advanced microbiology laboratory course.

Learning Goals

Objectives for the course & major projects:

"The oral presentations and lab reports assigned in BIOL 3116 reinforce the concepts and procedures taught in the course. We are not only gaining valuable experience presenting and writing for a scientific community, we are reinforcing our understanding of the content. Knowing that we must be prepared to answer questions from our peers and instructor, we are encouraged to become experts on the course material. Without even knowing it, we're actually studying for our exams through the preparation of papers and oral presentations. As I began to study for the first test, I realized I already knew all of this stuff, something I was unaware of as I prepped for what I initially considered 'separate' written and oral assignments.

Within the scientific community there is a deficit of effective communicators. Regardless of how intelligent or even brilliant someone might be, an inability to communicate effectively can be crippling. BIOL 3116 gives students the opportunity to present their research experiences orally and in writing, which gives us an in edge in the increasingly competitive bid for admissions into graduate and professional schools. I have come to really understand the adage that it doesn't really matter if you have the right answer or the best solution, if you can't tell anybody."

-Joseph B. Bond, LSU Senior, Biological Sciences & Psychology, reflects on his junior-year experience in BIOL 3116. Joseph serves as the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant for the Fall 2009 section of BIOL 3116.

Context for Use

This project is best suited to junior-level, advanced laboratory courses where enrollment is limited (cap around 20 students). Students should be conducting similar, but differentiated experiments (individually or in pairs) that can be completed in 4 weeks or less. The presentations should be modeled on professional conference talks with strict time-limits. The benefits to students are two-fold. First, they are provided an opportunity to practice professional communication skills required of Microbiologists. Second, the iterative process increases knowledge transfer and their understanding of both the content and their communication ability.

Description and Teaching Materials

This course integrates the study of microbiology with an emphasis on the important skills of: 1) critical thinking; 2) scientific writing; and 3) public presentation. This course seeks to provide students with an understanding of important scientific concepts, laboratory techniques, an ability to think critically, and an understanding of the importance of microbiology to society in general. This course also seeks to contribute to some of the department of Biological Sciences departmental goals such as supporting science education in the community including efforts aimed at K-12 science, preparing students to pursue advanced and professional degrees successfully and/or enter the workforce with the tools to continue life-long advancement, educating voters on scientific policy, and contributing to our ever-expanding understanding of biological processes.

The majority of graded assignments are communication-based. Students are expected to prove their mastery of the study of microbiology by being able to express their processes and results through the spoken and written word.

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is important to give students very specific guidelines for the presentation (time limits & maximums, required details, suggested graphics, etc) to ensure that this project really engages their scientific learning. Even if you do not have access to a Communication Studio for supplemental support, it is necessary to talk to students directly about effective communication strategies and to incorporate practice, feedback, and revisions.

Assessment

To improve the quality of presentations from students and to ensure consistent grading, establish very clear guidelines and tips for presentations. Listed below are some general suggestions for framing an assessment; more detailed assessment guidelines are linked below.

Presentation Structure

1. Introduce/define objective, keeping in mind audience is hearing information for the first time

2. Show methods, clearly and simply, used to obtain results

3. Interpretation of findings, and significance

4. Summary

5. References

Presentation Guidelines

Students are asked to structure the subject as if they were teaching material to an introductory laboratory section of a microbiology class.

BIOL 3116 Oral Presentations: Tips for Students and Criteria for Assessment (Acrobat (PDF) 220kB Nov2 09)

References and Resources

Identify campus, community, and virtual resources available to students at your institution. Many colleges and universities have Writing across the Curriculum programs, writing labs, speech tutors, and other support centers for academic excellence.

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