Penn Staters teach international course on communicating scientific research


When the Simula School of Research and Innovation (SSRI) invited Michael Alley to teach a communications course to graduate students in 2003, he had no idea what to expect.

Almost every year since that inaugural trip, Alley, associate professor of engineering communications at Penn State, has returned to Norway to teach Communicating Scientific Research, which helps participants learn how to effectively communicate their research in scientific presentations, papers and dissertations, as well as in less formal settings.

Over the years, the course has increased in popularity and expanded from one to two weeks — one in spring and one in fall.

Alley explained, “The students at SSRI have become so interested in my ideas. The first year I taught a class of about 12, and this year 72 students are enrolled in the course.”

However, Alley noted, he and the course organizers realized they didn’t have the human resources to teach a class that size.

Not missing a beat, Alley suggested that this would be a great opportunity for engineering students who had performed well in their communications classes to teach the course.

Alley recruited mechanical engineering doctoral candidates Michelle Kehs and Jessica Menold, recent mechanical engineering graduates Kelli Lenze and Rachel Perini, and recent engineering science graduate Jessica Spoll to travel with him to Oslo to deliver the spring section of the course from May 9-13.

“They had a lot of responsibility, from teaching to running critique groups of 12 to 18 Ph.D. students,” said Alley.

The course included a mix of lectures, videos, guest speakers and practice presentations. Graduate students from about a dozen technical universities in Norway, plus students from the University of Hamburg and the University of Copenhagen, participated.

All five Penn State course facilitators said the experience was challenging but in a good way.

For instance, Lenze, who received her bachelor's degree days before the course began, said it was sometimes difficult to understand the doctoral students’ research.

“However, I quickly realized that my unfamiliarity with the topics allowed me to help them break away from their curse of knowledge and communicate their science to a wider audience,” she said.

Nevertheless, they all agreed that the rewards outweighed any challenges they faced.

“I loved seeing how the students learned from each other even more than from us. We gave them the tools they need, but they really jumped on every opportunity to use them during workshops and critique sessions,” said Perini.

Kehs added, “Some of the students were so excited about presenting their research and it was a good reminder that I needed — presenting can be fun!”

Though they didn’t have much downtime, the women did manage to do some exploring in Oslo.

“There was a lot to do within walking distance from where we were staying, so we went out for dinners and on Friday when the course ended we went downtown to see the Royal Palace and the Oslo Opera House,” said Kehs.

This fall, Alley will return to Norway to teach the second week of the course with Christine Haas, founder and CEO of Christine Haas Consulting, LLC.

“She has worked with Penn State to scale the Engineering Ambassadors Program into the Engineering Ambassadors Network. She is incredibly talented,” said Alley.

He will also be accompanied by Kehs and Lauren Murphy, a 2014 mechanical engineering graduate who will teach a section on film in the fall session.

Communicating research effectively is important, especially for scientists and engineers, said the group.

Spoll explained, “When engineering and science discoveries are not properly communicated, they cannot be fully appreciated and won't have the broader impact that they deserve.”

“We study science and engineering to solve problems and improve the quality life, among other things, which is not possible without communication,” added Lenze. 

Alley said he appreciates the relationships he has forged over the years as a result of teaching the course.

And it sounds as though Alley is equally appreciated by the SSRI.

In a May 11 Simula news release, Professor Are Magnus Bruaset, head of the SSRI, talked about the value that Alley brings to the course.

“At Simula, we diligently strive to put quality first. This applies to our research, and to the way we communicate our results. Therefore, we also need the very best training. Having collaborated with Michael Alley and his team for more than a decade, I am confident that this course is at the very top level internationally,” he said.


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Stefanie Tomlinson

The Penn State course facilitators take time to enjoy the view of the Oslo Fjord.

The Penn State course facilitators, from left to right, Jessica Menold, Kelli Lenze, Jess Spoll, Rachel Perini and Michelle Kehs, take time to enjoy the view of the Oslo Fjord. Image: Michell Kehs.



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