Patty Raun stood before a group of graduate students, her instructions echoing inside the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre at the Moss Arts Center.

“We will be doing some things that will take you out of your comfort zone,” said Raun, who directs the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech. “One of my goals is to help people get out of their heads and get into their hearts and bodies.”

It wasn’t long before the 40 initially quiet scholars moved to the stage, where they formed a large circle and began shaking their arms, stomping their feet, and standing in power poses at Raun’s direction.

The students were preparing for the third Nutshell Games, which will be held on Oct. 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Moss Arts Center in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Science Festival. For this competition, aimed at a non-science audience, graduate students each are tasked with explaining their research in 90 seconds, without the help of posters, slides, or charts.

The goal: Be clear, engaging, and entertaining.

“Why is the pitch only 90 seconds?” one of the students asked Raun.

“Because at 91 seconds I get bored,” Raun said, jokingly.

First-, second-, and third-place winners each receive $500. But there is more to the Nutshell Games than winning.

“These are concepts and muscles that they will continue to build over their lifetimes,” said Raun, who is also a theatre professor in the School of Performing Arts.

Tyler Weiglein, one of this year’s participants, said he entered the competition because “it seems like an interesting challenge.”

His major test is to figure out how to explain to people why they should care about his research. Weiglein, who is working toward a master’s degree in forestry, is studying how climate change affects soil organic matter. He said he cares about the environment and enjoys spending time outdoors and hiking, in particular.

“Of all of the challenges that humanity is facing, climate change is the largest because it affects so many other things,” Weiglein said.

To prepare for the games, Allison Hutchison, a doctoral student in rhetoric and writing in the Department of English, said she plans to practice talking aloud on her own and with her husband and pets.

“The boiling it down part is hard,” said Hutchison, who will discuss her dissertation research to offer virtual tutoring to students who take online technical writing courses. “When I start to talk about my research, I get excited about it.”

The participants’ research covers a wide array of topics and includes everything from designing the future of smart homes to examining why food waste matters.

In the second half of the three-hour workshop, students practiced talking in pairs about the ways that their research is important to the world and to them personally. Raun called it discovering the “kernels” in their nutshells.

“We are trying to help them tell a story of their work,” she said. “It can’t be the full story, but to distill down an important piece of why they do their work.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone and Haley Cummings, a junior majoring in public relations at Virginia Tech.

Related Story:
Virginia Tech Science Festival returns Oct. 27