By Nancy Freitas, Energy and Resources Group
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023
Figuring out how to fund your research and education as a graduate student is a daunting task. Most of us know that writing for grants and fellowships can help defray these costs, but learning how to navigate applications, timelines, and requests for supplemental materials can often feel like more work than it’s worth. Given that we are typically somewhere near the beginning of our research careers (and in the throes of deciding exactly what our research interests even are), distilling these ideas into a cohesive, punchy story for a grant application can be a totally overwhelming experience.
As a GSI for the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) Grant Writing Class, I observed a clear correlation between students’ struggles to verbally explain their research and their ability to compile these ideas into stories with clear throughlines in their written applications. Within academia we are taught to think about the content of our work, but we are rarely taught how to communicate it to different audiences – I believe that these skills are not only instrumental for streamlining research ideas into stellar grant applications, but they are also fundamental to helping graduate students become better science communicators, interviewers, public speakers, and boundary spanners between disciplines. In an effort to help the students in my class build more concise, understandable, and compelling narratives about their research, I decided to integrate science improvisation exercises into the ERG Grant Writing Class curriculum.
I relied on the Alan Alda Method of Communicating Science, as well as lessons learned from UGBA 191I (an improvisation class offered through the Haas Business School) to build 20 minutes of improv exercises into the beginning of every class session. In the first half of the semester, I focused on introducing students to various improvisation games and helping them develop active listening skills, comfort with spontaneous speech, and the ability to deliver feedback to their peers. In the second half of the semester, I tailored the improv curriculum to storytelling and delivering research pitches, specifically as they related to the students’ grant applications. In every class, I first gave an example of the improv activity and then had students pair up to complete the activity. The whole class would then engage in a five-minute conversation about what they learned and how they could apply lessons from the exercise to their research narratives (both spoken and written). These feedback sessions not only helped me pedagogically evaluate how the improv activities were developing, but helped students connect low-stakes communication exercises to much higher stakes grant applications.
I used one exercise in particular to assess students’ ability to weave their research into a conversational narrative. At three points during the semester, I gave students 3 minutes to discuss their research with a peer. At the beginning of the semester, most students delivered monologues about their work instead of engaging in conversations, got lost explaining methods instead of focusing on big picture takeaways, used jargon-heavy language that disregarded who the listener was, and didn’t finish talking about their research within the allotted time frame. However, by the end of the semester, students were able to so successfully talk about their research in 3 minutes, that I knocked down their time to 1 minute, then 30 seconds, then a mere 15 seconds. When our course instructor attended the last class session, she was blown away by their ability to communicate their research concisely in just a matter of seconds.
It’s difficult to directly link improv exercises to improvements in students’ written work, but I can confidently say that my class learned how to articulate their research in markedly more engaging and meaningful ways. At the end of the day, grant applications are truly nothing more than well-delivered stories, and the more practice we have voicing these narratives out loud, the more compelling our research becomes.