Three Minute Paper: a word with Champlain college head Melanie Sedge

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Could you please give a brief description of 3MP?

Three Minute Paper (3MP) is a competition for undergraduate students who are in an upper year course completing a major project or a thesis. The idea behind the competition is that they would be able to communicate their complex research ideas in three minutes–or less–to a general audience. Students from all the disciplines and colleges compete, giving their three-minute spiel to the audience and a panel of judges, and at the end of all the presentations judges score them based on criteria that’s set out ahead of time. There are three top winners this year, with a Participants’ Choice and an Audience’s Choice in addition to the main prize.

So is that new for this year?

The structure is different this year. We are asking for faculty to support their students rather than having a college panel to evaluate the applications.

When was 3MP introduced and how has it changed since then?

This is the third year of 3MP and it’s based off of the Three Minute Thesis model for graduate students—that’s an international competition based on a model that started at the University of Queensland in Australia and just spread all over the world. So we created a model for undergraduate students so that they can benefit from the same sort of experience. Because the idea behind the competition is that while students are going through the competition they’re learning important skills about concise communication that a general audience can understand. So they work with an academic skills instructor, Erin Stewart-Eves, a co-founder of 3MP, to prep their session and talk about what would make a good presentation and what would be in the slides since they can use up to three PowerPoint slides in their presentation. So, things like: what composes a good slide and what would go in a good slide? They learn all these things as they’re going along and they can do a practice session with her as she coaches them. Generally, there’s lots of times in interviews or chance meetings with people as you’re networking where you need to be able to explain what you do or something about yourself or your research in a way that is catchy and quick that they’ll understand and see the value in it – because there is value in all the work that undergraduates are doing. So to be able to communicate that is really what it comes down to when you’re looking for things like a job or a research grant.

Erin and I worked together on 3MP for the last three years with a student committee and a student from each college on that committee. And this year we’ve welcomed representatives from Traill and the Durham campus. We’ve never had interest from Traill as it was a graduate college prior to this year. Durham expressed interest in a meeting I was at last summer and they had a student register in 3MP as a Lady Eaton student. And I thought it was interesting that students might actually drive up to this campus with the desire to be a part of 3MP.

So 3MP works out well in terms of uniting Trent across campuses and college affiliations?

Yes, definitely!

Is 3MP intentional about fostering a healthy competition among the colleges?

Yes, it’s a pan-college event sponsored by all the colleges so we hope for representation and lively support from them. And we hope that it’s promoted throughout the colleges because the way the committees work we have a representative from each college. We also give the judges something from each college and it promotes a fun and spirited rivalry among the colleges.

What do you look for in potential 3MP candidates?

The applications are reviewed by an academic skills instructor who assesses whether or not students are ready to participate in 3MP. Some of the things that we’re looking for in the abstract are clarity and concise communication as well as something that is exciting. However, simply getting an abstract on paper isn’t going to tell you whether the person is a good presenter or what their presence in front of an audience will be like so we’re still taking that chance that they’ll come and get coached and show Erin their presentation ahead of time. They also need the support of the faculty member that is supervising them, which is really crucial.

What values does the experience teach students?

Understanding how to put their complex research together for later when they need to pull the important pieces of information out and communicate them in a really concise way that is understandable. And that’s not something everyone knows how to do, it’s a skill that you need to work on and develop. So when they go through the practice sessions with Erin and they really look at how they’re going to break down this huge topic they’ve been researching for an entire year and everything which is in their head, it’s really hard to compress everything they’ve been researching into three minutes. It forces them to pull out the really important nuggets and be able to talk about them in normal language. I think those are skills that students who go through this process have a much better understanding of. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be perfect at it, but it means they understand how to go through that process and to then prepare themselves for interviews or writing a research grant proposal.

In terms of participation discipline-wise, like sciences and humanities, do you find that there’s equal representation or that one is more prominent than others?

It’s more sciences. The format and clarity of the sciences seems to lend itself well to the 3MP model. We’ve had many humanities students apply, for sure, but it’s been mostly science students. When it comes to choosing judges we also try and make sure that it reflects the equal importance of both the sciences and the humanities. So even though we don’t ever have faculty judges, they’re still of a humanities or science background.

That’s true – the subjectivity of the sciences makes research a little simpler in the sense that academics usually agree on certain concepts whereas the humanities is a bit more scattered and full of conflicting opinions. What have students described as the most rewarding part of participating in 3MP?

I think the following quote from a student who’d previously participated captures that perfectly. Kelly McLean, who graduated in 2016 with her BSc. (Hons) in Biology, made the following testimony:

“I participated in the 3MP competition last year, and it was very difficult to condense my honours thesis work into 3 short minutes. I currently work for the Canadian Wildlife Service and am representing my office this weekend at a climate change conference for youth. Once again I have to talk about my work in 3 short minutes! I will definitely use the skills I learned in the competition to prepare my information.”

This shows how the experience allows the students to use the skills they’ve gained and to then translate them into real life.

To conclude, what advice would you give to Traill and Durham students participating in 3MP for the first time?

I would tell them not to be intimidated in any way and that we want them to be part of 3MP. We’re willing to work with the students—especially at Durham where there’s a bit of distance between us—since it’s their first time and we’re hoping to make it really accessible for the students. The same goes for Traill College, although it’s a shorter distance gap, but we want participation from all components of Trent so I would just encourage them to be Trailblazers and represent their college. Most importantly, we want them to show us what they’re working on!