Thursday, April 14, 2005

Undergraduates and Research

I have several undergraduates working with me on a research project right now. The project is challenging for them, and requires them to learn a lot, but they are all quite bright and the project is well within their skill levels. It is also a "fun" project in that they get to play around with some cool technology that they wouldn't normally be exposed to.

Working with undergraduates is always an interesting prospect. Most of them have not done anything remotely related to research before. Some of them catch on to the basic rhythms of a project right away; for others, the learning curve is much steeper. It is hard to tell what camp a student will fall into until the student starts working for you. Some of them do tremendously wonderful work with little or no prodding from me; others need a lot more hand-holding. The experience is always more work-intensive than I expect. But I continue to bring undergrads into my research projects because (a) they always get some work done, which helps me; (b) it is a tremendous learning experience for the students, even if they don't ever quite get the hang of what they're working on; (c) I am a firm believer in exposing undergrads to research, because for me doing undergraduate research was such a life-changing experience, and it led me down the path to where I am now. (Hm. Is that really a good thing? Ha ha.)

One of the most interesting parts of the process is when the student comes to the realization that research is slow, messy, and often leads to dead ends. Because in every project, the student tries something that just doesn't work. Often, it is a big thing that doesn't work (for instance, an initial assumption is completely wrong, or we can't get the new software to play nicely with the rest of the software). And the student gets frustrated, really frustrated. And how they deal with it next.....well, each student deals with it differently. I see part of my role, actually, as helping them to come to terms with this fact of life, to learn to move beyond the sticking point, to learn to cut his/her losses and find another way forward.

I was reminded of this today while meeting with a couple of the undergrads. They are working on something that might lead to a dead end, but it is really too soon to tell. One student is entirely optimistic that something we try will work. The other is entirely pessimistic that the project is doomed to failure. This second student has been working with me longer than the first, and had a bad experience a few months ago writing some software that we could just not get to work with the other software we were using. The thing is, he still did tremendous work, and wrote a very insightful paper on what went wrong and how we might have been able to proceed differently if we had made some changes in our initial model. He has an uncanny understanding of both the big picture and the small details of this project. He is extremely bright. Yet, I think his past experience has scarred him a bit and has almost made him afraid to try anything.

How do you fix this? How do you get a student like this back on track? I go out of my way to praise the work my undergrads do, and I've told him many times before how proud I am of his work and what great and consistent work he does....but apparently words are not as powerful as experience. I am a bit worried about him, and I'm crossing my fingers that he has some success with this project---just so he can get his confidence back. I certainly don't want him to "burn out" on research already! (Plus, I don't want him to dampen the enthusiasm of the more optimistic student, although considering the optimist's personality I don't think there's any danger of that.)

On a brighter note, though, I was also reminded of the joyful part of exposing undergrads to research the other day. I was showing one of my other students how to use a particular piece of software, which allows you to see in real time what's going on during a particular process. As I demonstrated how to use the software, I casually pointed out things as they appeared in the display window, not really thinking about it. I looked up at one point, and noticed that the student was completely in awe. At that point I realized that for him, all of those disjointed pieces of information that he had learned in all of his computing courses so far, were now starting to fit together in his mind. It was a very powerful moment---for both of us, for different reasons.

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