Students pursuing graduate degrees from South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had the opportunity to improve their communication skills at the first annual communication conference hosted by SDSU’s Department of Animal Science faculty on October 23-24 in Marvin, South Dakota.
“This conference is part of a new graduate training program focused on developing skills in communicating outside academia and problem solving,” said Crystal Levesque, associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Animal Science. “Graduate training programs do a good job of training students to communicate science to scientists, but conversing with livestock producers, policy makers, media or consumers becomes a skill developed on the job. Communicating poorly in these circumstances can have real-life consequences. This conference was a way for students to learn to get it right when the cost of getting it wrong is much lower.”
The conference included presentations from industry leaders and a variety of round table discussions where students developed solutions to real-life case studies. Student attendees also competed in extension-based oral presentations targeted first at agricultural audiences, then at non-agricultural communities, that were evaluated by extension specialists and industry leaders who provided feedback on clarity of their message, overall quality of communication and methods for improvement.
According to Glenda Pereira, a Ph.D. student from the University of Minnesota, the conference differed from other conferences she has attended because of the level of support the industry leaders and faculty members provided to the student attendees.
“The industry leaders who attended really showed us that they need people with specific communication skills in the world and they were there to help us improve those skills – this is just as important as conducting research,” Pereira said.
To Augustina Osabutey, an agricultural and biosystems engineering and mechanical engineering master’s student at South Dakota State, and Kiersten Gunderson, a meat science master’s student at North Dakota State, being able to give oral presentations to industry professionals and receive feedback was invaluable.
“I got a lot of really helpful feedback from my panel about my presentation skills that I’m going to keep all my life,” Augustina said.
“I received both critiques and compliments that were really helpful to me that I can apply both academically and outside the academic setting,” Gunderson said.
According to Collette Kaster, CEO of the American Meat Science Association and Executive Director for the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), the conference allowed an opportunity for industry professionals to show students that being a good communicator is hugely important and should always be a priority.
“These students will need to be able to communicate with a broad range of audiences and I always tell young professionals they have to show mastery of their subject and feel comfortable communicating,” Kaster said. “This conference showed students how industry leaders communicate with others and allowed us to share some of our expectations and hopes for them.”
The conference was held as part of a larger graduate and professional degree training program made possible through by a Higher Education Challenge grant of $750,000 awarded to SDSU for the next three years supporting a project titled, “Strengthening the nation’s scientific and professional workforce in food and animal agriculture.” The program is a collaboration between SDSU, North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The specific problems to be addressed in the project are the lack of focused instruction on interpersonal communication and real-world experience in the food, agricultural, natural resources and human sciences fields within post-graduate and veterinary science programs. The overall program includes a series of communication training activities and commercial livestock production-relevant experiences to address concerns expressed by the livestock industry related to communication skills and commercial production experience. The intent is for the program to continue well beyond the life of the grant.