Montana State University

MSU researchers win $500,000 grant to develop oral communication training for STEM students

October 9, 2017 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Montana State University faculty — from left, Kent Davis, professor with the Honors College; Bryce Hughes, assistant professor of adult and higher education; Shannon Willoughby, assistant professor of physics; Leila Sterman, assistant professor with the MSU Library; and Brock LaMeres, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering — are part of the team that recently received a National Science Foundation grant to develop formal training for students in STEM fields to communicate their innovations. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN — A team of researchers from Montana State University has won nearly $500,000 to help doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – fields learn how to better communicate their research through speaking.

The three-year grant from the National Science Foundation will enable the interdisciplinary team of professors to work with eight students each year to develop their oral communication skills. The grant’s principal investigator is Shannon Willoughby in the Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science. Co-investigators are Kent Davis, Honors College; Bryce Hughes, Department of Education in the College of Education, Health and Human Development; Brock LaMeres, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Leila Sterman, assistant professor with the MSU Library; Jennifer Green in the Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science; and Chris Organ in the Department of Earth Sciences, College of Letters and Science.

“Being able to describe their own research in a more public-friendly, less jargon-based way is good for the (doctoral students), both in explaining the importance of what they do to non-experts … and in job interviews, especially if they’re going into the private sector, where maybe their research methodology isn’t the most interesting thing,” said Sterman. “This project should help them learn to reshape what they say based on the audience they’re speaking to.”

The grant will be broken into three parts, Willoughby said. Those parts include:

  • Weekly workshops where the students will work on improvisational speaking, including improving body language and decreasing jargon.
  • Podcast creation, where students will read out loud a recently published paper from his or her field and then have a discussion about the paper with their peers, with a focus on minimizing the use of jargon. Podcasts will eventually be available on the MSU Library website.
  • “Curiosity Cafes,” where students will practice oral communication skills with a live audience. The events will be held off-campus during the spring semester and based on the Café Scientifique model, which features a short presentation by a scientific expert in a relaxed setting followed by lively and thoughtful conversation.

The program will be open to any doctoral student in a STEM field after her or his second year of classes, with eight doctoral students selected to participate in the program each year. June 15 is the application deadline for entry into the program for the following fall.

The idea for the grant was hatched during a regular grant brainstorming session between Willoughby and Organ.

“One day we were thinking about grad students and their needs … and based on that conversation, I looked into what programs NSF has to offer for graduate students,” Willoughby said. “We saw this grant was available and decided to go for it.”

Part of the reason the grant caught her attention is that in her own career as a professor, Willoughby has worked hard to improve her communication skills when teaching, and she has noticed how strong communication can help her students grasp complicated concepts.

“When I teach astronomy I think about my oral communication skills,” she said. “I think about things I can change to better carry my voice and about looking my students in the face to see their reactions. I spend a lot of time considering my word choices to try to avoid jargon.”

Hughes noted other potential benefits.

“If research is difficult to access, people may not be sure they can trust it,” Hughes said. “Finding ways to bring very specific and complicated science into a venue that people can digest a little easier might re-enliven people’s interest (in science) and help them to better understand the work.”

Willoughby added that communicating research, particularly through the podcast and the “Community Café” events, aligns with MSU’s mission.

“At this land-grant, there’s such great research that many people know very little about,” Willoughby said. “It will be awesome to share a snapshot of that research with the rest of the state and country.”

She also noted that the Montana Engineering Education Research Center, known as MEERC, was vital to getting the research team together and shaping the program.

“Brock LaMeres is our engineer on the project, and his support was vital to getting the team together and to helping us think through a realistic timetable for our three-year plan,” she said. LaMeres serves as director of the MEERC.

MSU doctoral students in STEM fields who are interested in participating in the program are invited to email Willoughby for more information at

Contact: Shannon Willoughby, 406-994-1673 or