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Meanza and Stuart teach graduate students
how to present their science

Stuart, Meanza

If you walk into a room and see 20 or so people doing yoga exercises before they attempt dramatic readings, you might guess they were theater students.

But you would be wrong. They are physiology and neuroscience graduate students taking a class in drama as a way to improve their speaking skills.

Ann Stuart, professor of cell and molecular physiology, teaches a graduate presentation and writing class in the School of Medicine in which students present their research to Stuart, their classmates and other faculty members in the physiology department and neurobiology curriculum. The students also critique each other’s presentations.

Stuart has taught the class, which she initiated as an experiment, for eight to 10 years. “The class is an intense experience which I think is unique on campus,” she said.

To achieve the intended results, Stuart said she encourages her students to be merciless in their critiques of people who come to campus to speak so they can see how – or how not – to give an effective, engaging talk.

As part of the class, the students do writing and other exercises and must give two talks, which they rehearse with other students beforehand. They meet in what Stuart calls rehearsal pods and critique each other to incorporate peer feedback; then they give their rehearsed talk to the class.

The talks are filmed so Stuart and the students can discuss the presentations and what needs to be improved, whether it is voice projection, slide design, sequence of ideas and transitions, or posture.

Even with such thorough feedback, Stuart wants the students to hone their skills in engaging their audiences, so two years ago she added a new dimension.

“Who engages audiences?” Stuart thought. “Actors, of course.”

She contacted the Department of Dramatic Art and spoke with Jeff Meanza, director of education and outreach for PlayMakers Repertory Company (shown above with Stuart). He agreed to work with the students for one class period.

The students went to the Paul Green Theatre, where Meanza demonstrated various exercises that would improve their speaking skills.

“Two years ago the class was voluntary and the students thoroughly enjoyed it,” Stuart said. “This year I just put it on the schedule.”

Meanza thought it was an exciting idea. He said one mission of the Department of Dramatic Art is collaboration across disciplines.

“Using techniques of acting to show people they should be interested in what you have to say can produce dramatic results,” he said.

Some of the main things Stuart’s students typically have trouble with are voice projection, confidence, nervousness, posture and not knowing what to emphasize.

To address these issues, Meanza worked with the students on such things as vocal production, clarity of speech and nervousness. One challenge, he said, was getting the students to go outside themselves and not worry what other people thought.

He had the students work in groups doing warm-up exercises, playing games and reciting Shakespearean sonnets. He also showed them how to do vocal exercises with their material so they could make it as engaging as possible.

When the class began, Meanza said, the students were a mixed bag. Some had done theater in high school and were excited about the opportunity, but others were not. But even the students who had reservations were willing to play along, he said, and it was exciting to see the moment in which the students transitioned into their work.

“I’m going to throw a lot of ideas at you and work quickly with you so you don’t have a chance to second-guess yourself,” Meanza said.

Adam Gracz, one of Stuart’s students, thought the theater project was excellent. “The breathing and voice exercises were surprisingly effective in terms of relaxation,” he said. “I will honestly probably use some of these before my next talk.”

Another student, Mike Wallace, said: “This project provided a unique insight into the importance of not just communicating our science, but presenting it in a way that engages the audience and gets them interested in what we have to say. In science, it is often stressed to be concise and clear. However, flow and style are often overlooked. I felt that the theater project began to address some of those issues.”

Stuart’s class is more than a requirement, though, and the collaboration with Meanza goes far beyond fun and silliness. Skills taught in the class are essential for job interviews and research presentations.

“The skills you have to learn to knock the socks off people are very complicated,” Stuart said. “Graduate students’ whole lives depend on standing up there for one hour and telling people about their work. How effective they are in that hour often determines whether they get that job.”

Meanza and Stuart are pleased with their collaboration and hope that this concept might spread to other science departments at Carolina. Stuart is optimistic that her students will be more adept at connecting with their audiences and making their research understandable and engaging for people with a variety of backgrounds.

And she plans to have her students work with Meanza again next year.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Lauren Shoaf, a sophomore who is majoring in journalism and mass communication.

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INSIDE THE PRINT EDITION: April 14, 2010

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* *University conducts emergency drill off campus on April 21

* *Six are honored for service with Massey Awards

* *Meanza and Stuart teach graduate students how to present their science

* *Historian returns home to teach Carolina’s first Lumbee Indian course

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