Category Archives: Competition


The University of Waterloo finals of the Three Minute Thesis competition took place yesterday. I’ve written about this before, way back in November when we were just beginning to think about the competition. After four months of planning, organizing, and managing, it all came to a wonderful crescendo yesterday. It was truly exciting to see how well our students did. The 17 finalists were from all six faculties. There was one winner, one runner up (who will both move onto the finals at Queen’s University in Kingston next month) and one people’s choice winner.


There were glitches and panicky moments. The finals were held in a large auditorium in a brand new building. It took half an hour and five techies to get the powerpoint to work. Powerpoint slides, as you may remember, are an integral part of the presentations. No powerpoint; no competition that day. Yes, I was on edge. I got up to host the event, stood at the podium, and realized that two spotlights were shining right in my eyes–which means they would also be in the competitors’ eyes. No one could find which switch would turn them off. Finally someone did. The iClickers (that’s how the people’s choice award was determined) wouldn’t turn on. Oh, because the laptop on which the software was loaded ran out of power and had to be rebooted. Yeah. But once we got going everything went smoothly.

I’m proud to have been involved in this.  The students were excited; they worked hard; they did their best. They. Blew. Us. Away. I was so proud of them! As an English professor and now an Associate Dean in the Arts faculty I am used to championing our own arts students–and three of them made it to the finals. But my mind was also expanded beyond my own disciplinary and faculty homes. I realized, for instance, that I had a very narrow conception of what engineers do. Now, it’s true that I don’t like it anymore than anyone else does that arts is so under represented at this campus and so unrecognized outside of it.  I’ll always be a champion for arts. But for me, the most exciting part of this whole competition was learning about what students are up to in a whole range of disciplines–and I could learn a lot because the goal of the presentations was to speak in lay person’s language. Many of the contestants were adept at using simple analogies to describe complex processes or models. All of them were very good at explaining a) what their research question is and b) how their research aims to answer it. That might seem like an easier task for students working in the sciences or in engineering than for those in arts, but I don’t buy that. Every researcher should be able to make such statements about their work. Um, could I?

The other big lesson learned was just how many people and how many hours it takes to pull something like this off. Team work all the way. I’m so grateful (as I expressed publicly at the finals) for all of the work many members of staff did and for all of the people who volunteered to be judges, chairs, coaches, advertisers, and so on. It took a community. I love being part of that community.

I’ll be going to Queen’s to cheer on our UWaterloo students. Bring it on!


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Slow research, fast explanation

As I mentioned in my last post, I learned many interesting things at the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies conference. But nothing got me more inspired than the notion of the three-minute thesis (© 3MT). Have you heard about it? I hadn’t. So here’s the background.

It all began in Australia (those innovative Aussies who know how to mix work and fun!). At the University of Queensland (hello Aussie colleagues!). The idea is this:

  • It’s a competition.
  • Graduate students compete for glory but also for prizes, including cash.
  • The objective of the competition is that students have three minutes (and not a second more) to describe their research.
  • They are permitted to use one, static PowerPoint slide and no other props, gadgets, sound effects, costumes, etc.
  • They have to explain their research to members of the wider university community BUT ALSO to members of the public. In other words, they have to speak in plain English.
  • They are video taped.
  • There’s a judges’ winner and a people’s choice winner.
  • It’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Here are some samples:

I love this idea, and, silly me, said so out loud. So guess who is now organizing the three-minute thesis competition at the University of Waterloo!?!? Yikes! I’ve never organized anything bigger than a dinner party.

But it’s a good thing to get students involved in. I can see many positive outcomes. Students will have fun. They will be forced to speak to non-specialists, which will help them when they are job seeking after their degrees. Their friends and families will finally understand what they are doing and why it matters. They will develop oral communications and public performance skills—I anticipate much rehearsal time will go into this. And members of the public will have a window into what is actually going on in university graduate programs. We are getting so much negative press these days that it’s important that we can counter with stories that can get everyone excited. Yes, I realize that many of the winners are in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). And it’s easier for those students to explain how, for example, a tool or a gizmo will “change our world.” But Arts students tell good stories, and I’d love to hear more from them. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, we’re beginners at this right now, but I’m happy to climb onto this fun train.

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