Research immersion through ‘Elevator Speech’ role play

What is the strategy?

Undergraduate students in a mid- or upper-level biology course are tasked with identifying a research laboratory in the United States that has an active, federally funded research project using the NSF Award search website. Once they identify a laboratory with a funded project, the student must conduct research to understand the proposed research well-enough to present an elevator speech as though they are an undergraduate researcher in the lab. Elevator speeches have received considerable attention lately, with several scientific organizations (e.g., ASCB) providing international competitions for ‘best elevator speech’. Variants on the ‘Elevator Speech’ include the Three Minute Thesis (3MT), which seeks to encourage graduate and undergraduate researchers to distill their thesis or dissertation projects into an approachable, short format talk for a broad, non-scientific audience. George Mason University has recently begun participating the Science Slam event, which although is not short-format, is a competition to present research in an interesting way to a non-scientifically trained public.

Why should I use it? (How are they useful for students? The instructor?)

An important result of this design strategy is that through conducting research on active laboratories in the US, students presenting Elevator Speeches are exposed to a number of active research laboratories that may be seeking graduate student researchers and whose research piques the interest of the student. A daunting task for many undergraduates is knowing how to search for labs or universities where they may wish to perform graduate studies. By exposing students through an assignment to resources for selecting graduate programs, students might be better prepared to contact potential advisors for future research. Furthermore, by playing the ‘role’ of a student researcher themselves, they are required to understand what day-to-day tasks may be comprised of in a research lab. While investigating these complex, active, and federally funded research programs, students learn applications of course material and make connections to activities performed during laboratory inquiry and discussed in lecture. Cutting-edge research therefore becomes approachable

The instructor is given an opportunity to discuss active research projects with students and engage with them about challenging concepts. By researching outside of the class, students often bring questions to their instructor, which may give the instructor an important teaching opportunity. Similarly, the instructor is exposed to new, recently-funded research projects that may be of interest to their own research or provide new perspective to old approaches. This assignment also benefits from annual-turnover in the funding calendar, which means opportunities to plagiarize are exceptionally challenging for students. Most of all, the assignment is fun! During the presentations, I pretend that students must wait for an elevator door to open. The presentation begins when I signal that the doors have opened and introduce myself as a randomly selected (from a list) of well-known personalities (political, athletes, musicians, etc).

What is an example (or two) of the task?

Students work individually when researching their project. The instructor provides all necessary resources during an introduction to the project, including resources that describe elevator speeches in the context of professional development and career success. The assignment is given sufficient boundaries so that students have little room for confusion. Because topics must focus on laboratories with active NSF-awarded projects and the NSF award search website is intuitive and easy to navigate, students are quickly able to browse through subjects that meet their research or subject interests in the broad context of biology. The assignment can be further focused by subdiscipline by narrowing the NSF directorate that oversees the project. In this way, the assignment can be implemented in a number of focused classrooms.

During my first attempt at administering this assignment I introduced the ‘Elevator Speech’ halfway through the semester, with a supporting assignment description and rubric. Students were given a timeline to achieve a number of benchmark tasks, with a deadline for selected laboratory and a paragraph summary of the lab activities (with link to award record and PI or co-PI lab website). The student is recommended to investigate the laboratory website (or other online resources) for the PI and/or co-PIs to understand the size of the lab, number of students and collaborators, and the breadth of research conducted. Furthermore, it is recommended that students read one or two relevant publications authored by members of the lab, to understand technical details of lab activities. If the student encounters difficulty in accessing resources such as these, it may indicate they should try to select another topic, or contact the instructor to discuss challenges and difficulty understanding the material. In this way, the instructor can link elements of active research to concepts discussed in class. The ultimate product of this assignment is a 2–3 minute ‘Elevator Speech’ presentation that is understandable to a broad audience (classmates) and sufficiently describes the day-to-day activities of the selected laboratory and the student ‘role’ in the lab. To ensure classroom-wide engagement and participation, a contest is established in which the classroom audience members rank their top three ‘Elevator Speeches’. The top three speakers then receive an award or ‘certificate’ of excellence that has no grade-value, but recognizes their achievement and effort.

This assignment could easily be implemented in other disciplines, including health sciences, social sciences, and even competitively awarded contracts for any number of applied discipline with publicly accessible award databases.

How do these tasks fit into my class? How long will they take? Should I do these problems in groups? How big? Who chooses them?

This assignment is scalable to fit within a number of classroom schedules. The elevator speech assignment can be introduced at the beginning of a semester, with multiple timelines or due-dates, or it can be implemented on a shorter schedule (as in the example, above). The assignment is designed to take the student between 15–20 hours. Students complete the assignment individually or in groups, however I recommend it is given individually because this allows students the freedom to research topics of their own interests that may contribute to their own professional development.

For which topics should I assign them?

The topic (or selected laboratory) must be relevant to a subject covered in the course syllabus. This can be justified in the student’s laboratory selection summary or by demonstrating keywords or topics that are present in the syllabus.

How should I grade these problems? Should I grade these problems?

This assignment should be graded individually as a presentation. A rubric is provided that outlines a set of criteria for point values. Rubric items include (1) selection of topic and relevance to course topics, (2) sufficient description of daily activities performed by the lab and their relevance to the awarded proposal topic, (3) appropriateness of the presentation to a general, non-scientific, and public audience, and (4) general presentation guidelines including eye contact, pacing, and composure.

What pitfalls do I need to avoid? What do I need to explain to my students about the activity?

Sufficient boundaries must be placed on the assignment for it to be successful. This is largely covered by selection of award database, but this can further be refined. For instance, in my example above, I specified that awards must be active at the time the presentation is given, must be justified as relevant to a subject from course material topics, and must only include awarded proposals through the NSF Directorate for Environmental Biology (DEB). Students must be introduced to the concept of an “Elevator Speech” and it may be fitting for the instructor to provide their own speech to give an example. Perhaps ideally students can be presented with a number of examples from various awarding organizations (i.e., ASCB, 3MT, etc). For students to become more interested in the activity, it is recommended that the assignment be introduced in the broad context of professional development and career advancement. The main idea for the assignment is effective communication within the discipline. The benefits of this broad context are obvious, particularly to students enrolled in an upper level course who might soon be graduating. Ensure that fair time is given to each presenter. Because the presentations are individual, take thorough notes, keep a stop watch, and end the presentation precisely at the end of three minutes (“elevator has arrived, I have to get off!”). Provide time for audience questions and be sure to complete the rubric immediately. Therefore a clear, simple rubric is best, with graded items outlined thoroughly.