Why more students should dress up as Darth Vader in class

Students spend a lot of time at university trying to understand complex concepts and specialist terminology and learning how to explain and critique these ideas in a suitably “academic” way. This is crucial. Talking to experts is important. But students also need to know how to talk to everyone else; how be clear without being patronizing; how to pull someone’s attention to the key points; and how to create a relationship that leaves them wanting to know more.

Some students and academics, like me, get involved with the wonderful outreach training schemes that are available, including the British Science Association Media Fellowships and FameLab. However, the fact remains that only certain types of people engage with these extracurricular activities. While valuable, in a sense they’re preaching to the converted.

Instead, I’ve been working to make this sort of activity part of the curriculum so that it reaches all students. Third year undergraduates in my Exercise and Behavioural Immunology class at the University of Birmingham had to make three-minute videos that summarized a recent relevant scientific article, and were judged against the FameLab criteria of Content, Creativity and Charisma. One used Darth Vader to explain how exercise affects asthma, one creates fruit juice cocktails to show how aging and exercise influence thymic function, and another used hand drawings to illustrate the effects of bereavement on immunity. It really unleashed their creativity, forced them to think deeply about what they understood and how they could explain it, and also gave me the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings that were revealed by these short videos.

Supporting students to write articles for the public can have similar benefits. I was recently invited to do a credit-bearing workshop with the fantastic PhD students in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Monash University in Australia. Here we explored how to take very complex molecular pharmaceutical studies, and pull out the key points for a public audience. Again, it was a big challenge and the students had to really question what technical words were “general” enough and what were the key points to emphasise. Again, you can see some examples of student articles, on why arsenic might not just be a poison, why understanding red blood cells might help us treat malaria, and how new microscope techniques are letting us see right inside our body’s cells.

If any academics out there are interested in incorporating this type of activity into their programmes, then I have chapters that will help in my upcoming book “53 Interesting Ways to Assess Your Students” (out in June/July 2015). I’m also happy to provide advice personally, so just get in touch. Similarly students, I’d love to hear from you if you would like to know more about conveying your ideas in an accessible way, or if you think your university should include this sort of assessment!

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