PhD in Play-Doh

Play doh Image 1

Jandson Santos Ribeiro Santos, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University during the PhD in Play-Doh workshop within the Future STEMM Leaders program

I was given the opportunity to build upon the knowledge and reflection that the group had gained through the Future STEMM Leaders’ program Twitter – MQ Future Stemm  (created by Hossai Gul, current PhD candidate in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences) I decided to call the workshop Numbers, Words & Pictures – Finding the Story in your Data. The value of research is often lost in translation when presented to audiences with different interests and backgrounds. Hossai and I were keen to encourage the group to think differently and, perhaps, move beyond their comfort zone. I spent time looking for different ways to visualise research and was inspired by Amy Cesal who uses Play-Doh as a data visualisation tool https://depictdatastudio.com/daydohviz/ We sent the group this link along with others to help them to develop their stories and to consider how they might use the Play-Doh to communicate their research.

I began by giving a brief presentation on storytelling and the importance of using emotion to engage the listener and reminding the group that the following question needed to remain in the forefront of their minds … ‘why should the audience care?’

I gave some brief instructions on the PhD in Play-Doh activity after a slow start, where there was some uncertainty about how to proceed (I felt a moment of terror that it wasn’t going to work!) the group became absorbed in the task and it seemed that we may not be able to stop them. Creative solutions often arise when there are limitations and constraints. By using Play-Doh, the PhD candidates – often perfectionists – had to think about how to clearly illustrate their research using a basic modelling compound, knowing that they then needed to present their research via the Play-Doh to their peers – who were pretending to be a Year 9 class.

Once we called time on the construction phase, each person took a turn at presenting their PhD research, using the Play-Doh model to illustrate the main concepts. As the audience, we were treated to a range of interesting and engaging presentations which clearly outlined the research being done. The Play-Doh helped us, as an audience, to focus us on aims of the researcher and helped us to understand complex concepts and be infected with the enthusiasm that the researchers demonstrated for their research.

I was very relieved that the session went so well and was pleasantly surprised by how engaged the group became as they moved past the self-conscious stage. I have worked as an Art Teacher in a range of settings from high school, an NGO and within adult education settings and the expectations of these groups is that they are there to be creative. Deciding to offer a workshop using Play-Doh as a research visualisation tool to a STEMM PhD group was daunting because I felt that it might be viewed as trivial and a waste of valuable time. It seems my fears were unfounded. I am hopeful that this group of PhD candidates will continue to explore other ways that they can distil their research to create memorable experiences for future audiences.

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