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For some seniors, it's the most wonderful time of the year: the time their theses are finally due. As seniors prepare to present their research to their professors and peers, some who participated in the inaugural year of a year-long workshop on research communication will be prepared to explain their work to just about anyone, not only academics.

The workshop, called the University Keystone, aims to provide seniors with an opportunity to learn and practice how to communicate their research to diverse audiences, said Matt Scult '10, one of the Keystone's creators. But the new program's fate remains undecided, as administrators and students continue to evaluate its success.

The Keystone's format consists of lectures — delivered by professors, graduate students and other academics known for their communication skills — followed by discussions for students to practice what they have learned, according to Scult. Topics and lecturers have included Professor of Biology Ken Miller '70 P'02 on connecting with the audience, Associate Director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning Kathy Takayama on visual representations and Professor of Classics David Konstan on crafting a story.
Participant Kelsey Lane '10 said she especially liked Miller's and Konstan's lectures, adding that she found Konstan "really fun" and "brilliant."

Lane has also found the discussions among the students, who are from many different disciplines, to be particularly helpful, she said.    

Scult also had positive feedback. "I've personally found it very helpful, not only in the way I anticipated," he said.

It is easy to get caught up in the minutiae during research, Scult said. "When I was conducting the research myself, (the Keystone) helped me to think about it in a different light," he added. "It really provided me the opportunity to step back."

The Keystone was born from a group independent study project in spring 2009 on science communication, after some members of the GISP decided that they wanted to expand upon what they learned, Scult said.

"It's a really important skill, communication in general," Scult said. Although there has been a "good amount of support" to practice communicating research to people within one's specialty, opportunities to talk to people outside of one's field are scarce, he added. "We didn't get as much practice as we would have liked" in the GISP, he said.  

At the end of last year, several of the students that participated in the GISP proposed the idea of the Keystone to some University officials, said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. 

"I think it's a great example of student ingenuity at Brown," she said.

It has been "mostly student-run," though the group is advised by Professor of Geological Sciences Jan Tullis, and the University helps fund the Keystone and helped advertise it as an opportunity for rising seniors, Scult said.

In order to participate in the Keystone, seniors had to submit an application, according to Scult. Not all of the participating seniors are working on theses, said Lane, who conducted self-directed research in marine biology.

Initially, 12 students were admitted, but as the year progressed, six students dropped out of the program — something its organizers had not anticipated, he said.    

There were two reasons that students stopped participating, Scult said. Some students who planned to write a thesis changed their minds, he said, and other students stopped participating because the program did not meet their expectations.

Other students stopped participating because of scheduling conflicts, according to Lane.
Though students quit early into the fall semester, the program ran more smoothly as the weeks went by, Scult said.

If the program continues, there will be more time to smooth out its logistics and goals.

The seniors who participated in the Keystone will have a roundtable discussion on their experiences with it as part of the Theories in Action conference, an opportunity for seniors to present their capstone projects. Scult is working with Peggy Chang, director of the Curricular Resource Center, to refine the program with the goal of continuing it next year.

"This is like a pilot," Bergeron said. Depending on the feedback it receives, it may become institutionalized and happen every year, she said.

"It's definitely what I would like to see," Lane said. "I definitely think that there's both an interest and a need for it to become a regular program."


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