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.


4 thoughts on “Summer in the lab

  1. This is an excellent post – very valuable for an outsider as a way to understand what “summer research” means. Do you think you’ll have time to write updates during the summer about the students’ (and your) work?


  2. Thanks, CT! Yes, I plan on writing updates throughout the summer, for my work and my students’ work…at least one every other week.


  3. I am the parent of a Carleton student who wandered onto your blog after reading about faculty appointments.

    In January I’ll begin teaching undergrads on a part-time basis. I want to do it well! I’m inspired by your willingness to explore -and share – what goes well or poorly in the classroom and why. Have you read this article by Atul Gawande? He writes about Walter Reed Hospital, but it’s also about the power of self-assessment toward improving outcomes of all sorts. Here’s the link and his conclusion:

    “Negative thinking is unquestionably painful. It involves finding and exposing your inadequacies, which can be overwhelming. And not every problem discovered can be solved. You live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.

    That’s an unhealthy way to be in large parts of life: you don’t want to constantly seek out the inadequacies of your children, your looks, your abilities as you age. But in running schools or businesses, in planning war, in caring for the sick and injured? Negative thinking may be exactly what we need.”

    I enjoy reading your blog. Congrats on the promotion.


  4. Thanks, Josephine, and good luck as you start your teaching journey! I have not read that article, but I will do so, especially based on the conclusion you included here. I definitely am no stranger to negative thinking—sometimes I think I am my own harshest critic when it comes to my teaching. But it is important to be honest with yourself about what’s working and what’s not if you’re ever going to improve as a teacher, and so I am willing to entertain both the negative and the positive.


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