Facing a tough crowd: Holding a mini conference to improve research communication skills

Posted January 15, 2020

By Rodney Schmaltz

A closeup image of a microphone
When I tell students in my senior seminar course that they will be presenting demonstrations based on their research to junior high students from an inner-city school, the reactions mirror most of the five stages of grief. First, there is denial, then anger, bargaining (a lot of bargaining) and finally, when I fully explain why they are doing this, acceptance.

The students in this course are all involved in research, either as part of the Honors program or as an independent study project. Over the years I have been teaching this course, I noticed that students are very good at explaining their research project but lack the ability to connect the project to broader themes or explain clearly why the research matters at a societal level. It’s not a lack of understanding per se, but rather an inability to frame information in a way that is accessible to people outside of their field. In a sense, students were not able to give the “elevator pitch” of their research. Those who are well versed in research should be able to present information clearly to peers at a conference and should also have the ability to translate this information such that anyone from grandparents to younger people will understand it.

To help my students develop these skills, I invite a class of junior high students to attend a mini conference that is hosted by my class at the end of the term. The students in my course are assigned to create a short five to eight minute demonstration that highlights a key concept from their research. The demonstration does not have to be specifically about the hypothesis they are testing, rather it has to be something that will help a younger student understand the area of research in general. For example, one of the students in my class was studying brain damage and visual-spatial neglect. This is a complicated topic, but she created a demonstration that was highly engaging for the junior high students and provided them some insight into her research. She had the students wear glasses that adjusted their vision similar to a person with spatial neglect, and then asked them to throw balls at a target. If they were able to hit the target a certain number of times, they won candy.

The students in my class have said that this exercise helped them think differently about their research and to be more confident about discussing and presenting their work. I’ve had more than a few students say that conferences don’t seem as intimidating after you have been faced with 60 junior high students.

A zoomed out image of a speaker on stage and the audience
It’s incredibly rewarding to see how engaged the junior high students are, and how the students in my class rise to the occasion and are able to take a complex topic and make it meaningful for a younger audience This has also been a great way to engage the community. I provide the junior high students with transit passes, as well as a pizza lunch. The event is sponsored by a local company that was founded by a former student at our university. I encourage instructors to look at potential corporate collaborations to facilitate events such as this.


Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism. To see Dr. Schmaltz’s TEDx talk on empathy and skepticism, see https://youtu.be/FwvLWgjuMc8