TMT, Pecha Kucha, and the Art of Liberating Restraints

As is often the case on this blog, I am going to write about something I have just read.  EPFL is the  École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, which is a research institute/university in Lausanne, Switzerland, specialising in physical sciences and engineering. I subscribe to their news blog as part of my general reading, and am continually intrigued by what I read.  In today’s batch I learned about how Digital birdhouses make studying owls easier (“EPFL students have developed a system that can detect when barn owls fly into and out of their nests, without disturbing the birds. Their invention could soon be installed in some of the 350 birdhouses that biologists have set up in the Swiss region of Broye.”),  Astronomers make the largest map of the Universe yet (“Astronomers of the extended Baryonic Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, led by EPFL Professor Jean-Paul Kneib, used the Sloan telescope to create the first map of the Universe based entirely on quasars.”),  A tool for monitoring the biodiversity of Swiss livestock (“EPFL researchers have created an online platform for monitoring the genetic diversity of livestock and the sustainability of animal farming in Switzerland. This project, which was developed in partnership with the Federal Office for Agriculture, could serve as a model for other countries.”), Antibody biosensor offers unlimited point-of-care drug monitoring (“A team of EPFL scientists has developed several antibody-based biosensors that have the potential to help healthcare centers in developing countries or even patients in their own homes keep track of drug concentration in the blood.”),  Understanding how technology can revolutionize humanitarian work (“A new EPFL course offers students the opportunity to learn more about how new technologies can be used by humanitarian organizations. The students critically assessed new information-sharing methods by conducting a real-life exercise using the app Civique, which was developed by the Idiap Research Institute, an EPFL partner institution.”)

But the subject of this blog post is in this story about My Thesis in 180 Seconds: two EPFL students make it to the podium (“Two PhD students from EPFL were among the top three finishers in the Swiss finals of the My Thesis in 180 Seconds competition held last night in Geneva. One of them, Amaël Cohades, qualified for the international finals by coming in second. The 15 finalists, who came from universities all over French-speaking Switzerland, treated the large audience to an exhilarating look at their cutting-edge research.”)

After reading the post, I wanted to find out more about TMT (Three Minute Thesis).  “The Three Minute Thesis competition (TMT or 3MT) is an annual competition held in over 200 universities worldwide. It is open to PhD students, and challenges participants to present their research in just 180 seconds, in an engaging form that can be understood by an intelligent audience with no background in the research area. This exercise develops presentation, research and academic communication skills and supports the development of research students’ capacity to explain their work effectively.” (source)  A story in TheScientist, Your Thesis in 180 Seconds, from 2013 gives an overview of the competition, and its pros and cons. ” ‘The benefit of 3MT is that scientists who can already communicate get an opportunity to do so, and get feedback,’ said Kent (David Kent, a Canadian postdoc currently studying stem cell biology at Cambridge University in the U.K. and an long-time supporter of outreach activities). ‘That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the same as teaching them how to communicate. …I’ve got no problem with condensing concise thoughts into 3 minutes, and I think all researchers would benefit from learning how to do that,’ he said. ‘I just don’t think 3MT teaches you how to do that. The competition would be more useful if courses and workshops were always part of the program, he added.’ “(source)

I searched for video samples of TMTs  and found 79,900 (!!!) The first I watched was Dimitrios Terzis, from the Laboratoire de mécanique des sols at EPFL speaking about “Geo-mechanical constitutive model for Bio-improved soils”. (The format of his video made me think of TedTalks and how it has influenced presentation and staging.)

Then I sampled Megan Pozzi’s presentation. She was the winner of Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Education 2013 competition and the people’s choice winner, speaking about her research on teenage girls and social media identity and status updates.

These TMTs remind me of Pecha Kucha,  a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total). The images or slides advance automatically to keep the speaker on time, speaking only about each slide or image while it’s being displayed.   The essence of Pecha Kucha is to intentionally set limits on speakers using slideware (i.e. PowerPoint, Keynote etc.). Pecha Kucha is the Japanese term for “the sound of conversation” or “chit chat.” The format has been used in education for many years, and there is a lot of interesting writing about it. (Do a Google search for [pecha kucha in the classroom] after a few pages, use the Tools option to limit the search to the past year.) Read Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations  by Richard L. Edwards, and perhaps this page for practical advise, if you are new to the format.

The video below (1 hr 25 min) from an IB World School, the International School of Brooklyn was filmed at its 3rd Annual Pecha Kucha evening on Friday, March 10, 2017. “This year there were 12 presentations from the ISB community. Through their short presentations, community members give brief glimpses into their inspiration, their process, and their work! Think of Pecha Kucha as a series of mini TED talks that highlight the amazing talent of our community. “

When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl. - T. S. Eliot

When next you assign a slide presentation as part of a student assessment, or when next you prepare a slide presentation for a lesson, remember to think of TMT, and Pecha Kucha, and the art of liberating restraints. Be inspired to use one of these frameworks.

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