The week of my first lecture

This week I filled in for a professor and gave my first ever lecture as a professional scientist to undergraduate students. Two hours of talking at second-year geography students about the climate of Australia. I now officially feel like an academic!

Although I get nervous (who doesn’t), I usually like giving public presentations. After some training in science communication, I hope that I am not completely crap at them either. But this was my first presentation to an audience that were not native English speakers. Unfortunately I could not rely on our mutual knowledge of Con the Fruiterer, or speak in slang. AND, I only had six days to prepare.

Oh, and the campus I was lecturing at is next door to an amusement park! You can actually see roller coasters from the classroom. So I knew the lecture had to be interesting.

The view from the classroom. Can you see that, on the left? ACTUAL ROLLERCOASTERS!

Foolishly I additionally decided this would be my first attempt at using Prezi. I have seen the zooming in and out features of Prezi used well before and thought it could be handy to communicate the distance between Spain and Australia. In the end though my PowerPoint training was too strong and I ended up with a kind of PowerPoint-Prezi monster, with too many layers and perhaps not enough zooming.

Here’s the finished product….

Click for the full presentation...
Click the image for the full presentation in all its zoomy glory. Sorry, WordPress won’t let me plonk it here directly.

Overall, I think the lecture went pretty well. The students didn’t seem to hate it, and I enjoyed talking to the class, sharing what turned out to be a lot of things that I know about the Australian Climate (good work, ten years of education).

On reflection, these are the things that I think worked:

  • Telling my story. This is something I picked up working with Indigenous communities when I was a science communication student. It’s very important in some cultures (including Aboriginal culture) to share who you are when you introduce yourself. Where you come from, who your family is, and why you are where you are. Plus I showed the students an embarrassing photo of me, always good to get an early laugh.
  • Pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. I always use a lot of graphics in my presentations, but with the potential language barrier, I tried to ramp it up, reducing the text and trying to find iconic images to get my point across.
  • Videos. Luckily for me, the Department of Primary Industries in Victoria and New South Wales have made some great videos about Australian climate drivers for the farming community. The Climate Dogs are EXCELLENT, and they were a real hit.
  • Summarising text. The words I did use in each slide (or frame) summarised what was being said. This should always be the way, I think, in presentations, but for non-native speakers, having the main points on the slides is extra useful. I know I found this to be the case at the recent symposium where most of the presentations were in Spanish but the slides were in English.
  • Speaking slowly, with lots of breaks for questions. Some very handy advice I received on Twitter. I hope it didn’t feel patronisingly slow for the class.
  • Relating the content to Spain. When I talked about the seasonal cycle of temperature and rainfall in Australian cities, I showed a similar plot for Tortosa, so the students could compare directly. This made a lot of sense to them I think, and to me as well!

Next time, I think I would:

  • Add more pictures! As I was giving the lecture, I realised that I had missed out on sharing some beautiful images of Australia that helped capture our weather and climate, as well as parts of the environment that might not be known overseas. Uluru in wet and dry conditions! Red dirt! The barrier reef! Sugar gliders! If I had been using Powerpoint perhaps I would have added more, but Prezi’s editing and layering gremlins got the better of me.
How did I not use this adorably guy?! Source: not sure.
  • Add more videos! Of storms, of interviews after Black Saturday, of Australian climate summaries, of ocean currents and moving weather systems, all sorts of things. All students, nay, all people, love movies in a lecture.*
  • Add more text! Even though I spoke slowly, I think the students only took in about 60% of what I was saying. Just a couple more key phrases would probably have been very helpful, as well as a summary slide.
  • Do more research. This, I’m sorry to say, was the biggest thing missing from the lecture. Next time I will definitely spend more hours researching other lectures on the topic and asking Australian colleagues for advice. I should also do some more reading on how to give a lecture at all, and ask the subject teacher exactly what they want the students to get out of the class. This really ought to have been my first job, so a bit of a science communication fail there.
  • Be less keen. I am generally a keen bean, eager to please and to ensure that everything is fine. I can also be quite the loud talker, particularly when giving talks. Honestly, I feel like these two elements made the students a bit afraid to ask questions, or stop me to ask for clarification. I’m not quite sure how to tone this down for next time, if there is one. Perhaps asking questions to individual students, getting to know them more (if the class is small), or asking them to explain things back to me. Any advice?

*when they work. Which is hardly ever.

2 thoughts on “The week of my first lecture

  1. To be honest, in most cases I do not like videos. Quite often you have to compare parts of the video with each other, which is hard. A few stills next to each other is easier for comparisons.

    The Australian climate dogs are naturally an exception. Hard to explain that more engaging yourself.


  2. Videos are fraught with danger of running into technical difficulty too! But in this case, especially for students unfamiliar with the Australian climate, I found the dogs to be a real hit 🙂


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