UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Jacob Cordell, a first-year materials science and engineering student in Schreyer Honors College, propped his iPhone against the screen of his open laptop, touched play and recorded his first-ever video “talk” about the properties of tin sulfide, a compound he’s hoping will one day replace expensive silicon as the primary ingredient in solar panels. Wearing safety glasses and flanked by lab equipment, his brief video illuminates his green energy research in an engaging and easy-to-understand way.
As part of a new program called ROAR, undergraduate students from any academic discipline were invited to use Penn State’s One Button Studio, or a personal recording device like an iPhone, to capture creative, two-minute presentations about their original research or art. These multimedia presentations will be exhibited alongside more traditional posters and displays at this year’s Undergraduate Exhibition on April 8 and 9.
Motivated by the popularity of the TEDTalk format — short videos about "ideas worth spreading" — Nichola Gutgold, associate dean for academic affairs in Schreyer Honors College, worked alongside Beth Crowe, assistant vice president and associate vice provost for undergraduate education, to develop ROAR.
“Even the most complex research can be made understandable to a wide audience. With ROAR, I wanted to bring that same spirit of public intellectualism we see in TEDTalks to our students by encouraging them to make sense of their research in a way that is relevant and anyone can understand.”
— Nichola Gutgold, associate dean for academic affairs, Schreyer Honors College
Gutgold has been teaching public speaking to college students for two decades, and through the years has used technology tools like cassettes, VHS tapes and digital cameras to record her students' speeches during class, but is now turning to new multimedia technologies to inspire students to "speak up and speak well" — her foremost advice for undergraduates.
In a time of rampant online networking, recruiting and interviewing, employers and career services professionals agree that digital media and communication skills are essential for students to cultivate in today’s competitive job market. Being able to present on camera is another aptitude to add to the mix, said Gutgold.
Fortunately, undergraduates at Penn State are carrying these high-quality video tools around in their pockets. In using technologies as ubiquitous as smartphones and laptops to record ROAR clips, students get the chance to combine talking about their research, however intricate, with the art of public speaking.
“Even the most complex research can be made understandable to a wide audience,” Gutgold said. “With ROAR, I wanted to bring that same spirit of public intellectualism we see in TEDTalks to our students by encouraging them to make sense of their research in a way that is relevant and anyone can understand.”
For Cordell, learning to speak eloquently about his solar panel research is a new challenge, but one he’s eager to face. “The idea is that research does not begin and end in the lab — it’s carried out to provide a tangible service for humankind. For me, hopefully that service will be creating a means for the price of solar panels to fall and for consumer interest and demand for solar panels to rise,” Cordell said. He believes his ability to vocalize the importance of his work will be paramount in securing grant funding and persuading the public to adopt sustainable living practices.
And he’s right, according to Gutgold.
“ROAR is a really good opportunity for students to practice the presentation skills they learn in CAS 100 Effective Speech and CAS 137H Rhetoric and Civic Life,” she said. “Whenever you practice these skills, you become a better, more confident communicator. It’s an ability that’s valuable for a lifetime.”
Perched on a stool in a glossy white lab in the Millennium Science Complex, Cordell admitted that it took him 70 tries to record his ROAR “talk” — but he didn’t give up.
“I wanted to do a video because I thought it would be helpful for me to explain to other people what I do in layman’s terms,” he said. “While I didn’t include technical details in my talk, the experience helped me better understand the science for myself.”
For Lindsey Lorefice, a music education student in Schreyer Honors College, the ROAR video she created using a laptop encapsulates her excitement about her music education research and thesis. “At the moment, no television program for children exists that directly teaches leadership. Therefore, my thesis presents an idea for a TV show targeted to elementary children that uses music to teach decision-making and leadership skills,” she says.
Lorefice’s thesis, the Lyrics of Leadership, relies on songs, skits and sketches, which she believes are better conveyed through the audio-video format of a ROAR “talk” than a traditional research poster.
For students who don’t have the necessary equipment or expertise to record videos or create multimedia projects on their own, the Media Commons and Penn State’s One Button Studio — a do-it-yourself video recording studio in the Knowledge Commons at University Park — can help.
Designed to remove barriers for creating professional-quality videos, the One Button Studio is equipped with a green screen and a single button that controls camera, lighting and sound equipment. Students, faculty and staff can use the all-in-one studio to create videos for class work and other projects, while staff at the Media Commons are also available to help students plan, produce and publish multimedia projects using a range of video, audio and editing resources.
More of a tech expert than a novice, Akash Ghai is studying supply chain and information systems in the Smeal College of Business, but he has a passion for documentary photography. Though he was comfortable producing his own short film for ROAR without the help of the One Button Studio, he believes all Penn State students should educate themselves in the basics of multimedia.
“I think it’s essential for students to be well-versed in media technologies, as they play such a significant role in visual storytelling and promoting one's projects and self online,” Ghai said. “Even if a student does not consider multimedia his or her forte, it’s still important to develop an online presence since so many people consume information via the Web.”
Ghai will display a series of photographs, titled "Leaving Home," at the Undergraduate Exhibition with the hope of initiating a conversation about the lives and stories of young immigrants living in State College. Ghai’s ROAR film features the voice of one of his photographic subjects: Ali, a refugee from Kurdistan.
Leaving home is something Ghai has experienced as well. “I was born in the United States and moved to India at an early age. When I came back to America to study at Penn State I became interested in exploring how immigrating to the U.S. may not always be a ‘step up’ in terms of an individual's lifestyle,” Ghai said. “I created the ROAR video to provide a narrative structure to my photographs using Ali’s voice. I felt the photographs would have a deeper impact when combined with Ali talking about his new life.”
Multimedia tools — such as YouTube and the camera, audio recorder and video editing software Ghai used for ROAR — enable students to become content creators within their respective disciplines, while shining a spotlight on their research and art.
“Research is a way for students to learn more deeply and creatively about subjects. It’s taking their education to the next level, and when it comes earlier it creates a deeper undergraduate experience,” Gutgold said.
For Cordell, ROAR taught him something about the potential global impact of his solar panel research.
“It was eye-opening to talk about myself, what I do and what’s important to me. I had to learn how to present green energy research in an interesting way, which I may or may not have achieved, but at least I’m one step closer to getting there,” Cordell said. “That’s really one of the most valuable skills in any profession, arguing how what you do is important for the world.”