Summer in the lab

The exams and projects have been graded, the grades have been submitted…it’s summer!  And summer around here means…research!  And research students.  So I thought it was a good time to write a “state of the lab” post, which I haven’t done in a while (possibly ever).

This summer I have 4 students working in my lab.  None of them have ever done research before, and none of them have taken any classes related to my research area—they are all fairly new to CS.  So as a research mentor and advisor, I have a bunch of tasks to accomplish this week:

  • Get my students up to speed on the project.  In order to understand what they’ll be doing, they have to understand what we’ve already done, as well as the motivation behind this work in the first place.  This year I spent a lot of time the first day talking about the history and evolution of the project, to give them a sense of “place” and context for the work.  They also read past papers written by the research group as well as at least one paper from a lab doing related work—this gives them a sense of how different researchers approach the same problem.  Finally, they take a look at the code and data (at least a small subset) that we’ve written/collected so far, to get a sense of what they’ll be working with all summer.
  • Get my students up to speed on the relevant background material.  As I mentioned, none of my current students have taken a course in computer networks.  So on Day 1 I gave them a crash course on networks, and the next day they had a crash course on streaming video.  In addition to (textbook) readings, this year I also gave them some of the labs that my networks students do in class, so that they could practice with the concepts as they read.
  • Get them to touch a piece of the project.  I feel it’s really important for the students to develop a sense of ownership over the project as soon as possible, so that they feel invested in it.  This year, I’m having the students analyze some data that I’ve recently collected but haven’t had a chance to fully analyze.  Not only does this task get them working with Actual Data, but it helps me see how they’re thinking about the project, too, through the decisions they are making about the analysis.
  • Teach them the tools they’ll be using on the project.  We use a lot of different software on the project:  packet sniffers, routing tools, version control, and 2 different IDEs.  So part of this week was spent practicing with these tools, so that their use becomes second nature.

Yesterday, we took a field trip up to Macalester to meet with CS faculty and research students from Macalester and from St. Olaf.  Each student gave a short talk on their summer research.  It was neat to hear about the research happening at our peer schools and to get the students together to meet and network with each other.  Even though my students had only been on the job for 3 days, they gave a great talk on the project!  They clearly understand the project and the work, and I’m excited about what they’ll be able to accomplish as a result.  (I think my “state of the project” talk on the first day really helped them put their talk together—they were able to clearly articulate why we were doing this research, as well as how what they’ll be doing will fit in to the project as a whole.)

Next week, the students will get to delve into the code base for the project, and start changing the design of our measurement tool.  I’m especially excited about this part of the project because it’s been on my to-do list for quite some time.  I’ve already had some good preliminary discussions with my students about the experimental design, and I suspect that these discussions will help guide the software redesign.  Hopefully the tone, and framework, I’ve laid down in the first week will help the students to make good progress next week, and in the coming weeks this summer.