NAU graduate student using Instagram to teach Spanish wins award

Sofia Sweeney

Young adults spend so much time on social media—why not use it to teach them Spanish?

That was the question behind Sofia Sweeney’s thesis. The Northern Arizona University graduate student invited dozens of her beginner Spanish students to join her on Instagram, where each day she posted a word in Spanish. They then posted a picture related to that word, captioned it in Spanish and commented on their classmates’ pictures, also in Spanish.

After a semester of this, she found students who participated in this learning both understood more Spanish and retained it for longer than those who learned in more traditional methods.

There’s more to it, of course, but at the fourth annual 3 Minute Research Presentation (3MRP) competition on Tuesday at the High Country Conference Center, Sweeney stuck to the basics, summing up her 80-page thesis in three minutes and doing it so convincingly that she won not only first place and the accompanying $3,000 prize but also the people’s choice award, which was an additional $1,000.

“Students can learn and practice Spanish in a real-world context using their mobile devices at anytime from anywhere, so their language learning is no longer limited to their time spent in the classroom,” she said. “The last thing I want is for my students to be bored to tears in my classroom doing monotonous bookwork. I strive to incorporate a lot of fun and relevant activities that get learners excited about Spanish and involved in their own learning process.”

Eight graduate students presented at 3MRP Tuesday. The students all had the same challenge: pare down a complicated, technical research question on which they’ve spent hundreds of hours studying into a 180-second presentation that is understandable to the hundreds of non-experts in the room. Topics ranged from bee pollination to rape myths to alternative treatments of bacterial infections.

The program, which takes place at universities throughout the nation, helps prepare graduate students to present their research, said Maribeth Watwood, dean of the Graduate College. Although most people only saw these presentations, each of the students spent months during training and practice sessions and preliminary heats, much of which was facilitated by the Cline Library, one of the partners with 3MRP.

“The 3 Minute Research Presentation final competition is a celebration of the outstanding scholarly work conducted by our graduate students,” she said. “It is extremely fulfilling to see our students shine with their professional presentation skills.”

Sweeney, who graduates in May, will present this research with her academic adviser, Yuly Asención-Delaney, at the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium Conference at NAU in May and will apply to present it at other conferences. She is preparing it for publication as well.

She also may not be done with the three-minute presentations. First-place winners from throughout Arizona will compete at a state competition and then may go onto regional competitions. Uzma Tahir, last year’s winner, recently won a regional 3 Minute Research Presentation.

In addition to the presentations, the Graduate Student Government hosted a poster symposium, allowing about two dozen students to display their research projects on topics such as concussions among high school football players, using bacteria to restore soil health after a drought, using telehealth care to improve access to health care in rural areas and prioritizing species during restoration of a tropical rainforest.

Winners, 3-Minute Research Presentation

1st: Sofia Sweeney, “Instagram as a Second Language Vocabulary Learning Tool”

2nd: Alexanndra Heyert, “Computational Insights into the Molecular World of an Antimicrobial Agent”

3rd: Jenna Fejervary, “Words Matter: Understanding Rape Myth”

People’s Choice: Sofia Sweeney

Graduate Student Government Poster Symposium

1st: Molly Shuman-Goodier, “The effects of sub-lethal pesticide exposure on behavior of aquatic vertebrates: a meta-analysis”

2nd:  Alexis Okurily, “A Disease Specific Exercise Approach in Independent Community Dwellers with Parkinson’s Disease: A Pilot Study”

3rd: Molly Shearer, “Perspectives on Stuttering Self-Disclosure by Adult Persons Who Stutter”

People’s Choice: Daniel Foley, “Utilizing Geospatial Technologies to Solve Ancient Geologic Problems in the Ancestral Rocky Mountains”


NAU Communications