Summer program midterm evaluation

We’re halfway through our inaugural summer program for high school students. I am happy to report that I am surviving so far (some days, barely) and mostly having a great time.

I talked a bit about the program in a previous post, but to recap: 31 students, divided into 3 groups. Mornings are class time: each week they take one class for 3 hours each day in a different specialty (this year: human-computer interaction (HCI), robotics, and evolutionary computation), rotating among the specialties each week. In the afternoons, they do research with faculty. So I teach HCI for 3 hours every morning, and in the afternoon I have 11 students doing research with me in HCI. So far the program seems to be working rather well.

It was hard for me at first to figure out how to structure my course and research for the high schoolers. I have zero experience with high school students, so I went into this with more questions than answers. How much did they already know? How quickly could they learn? How would they compare intellectually to Carleton students? What could I realistically expect them to do research-wise in 3 weeks?

I decided to assume that these students would be on par with Carleton students (after all, these are students that we hope will come to Carleton), and structured my curriculum appropriately. I set up my class meetings similar to how I would set up a Carleton class (well, similar to 3 class meetings rolled into one day), with similar content and similar activities. I figured it would be easier to adjust down than adjust up if necessary. One major change: more lecturing, since I couldn’t count on them reading the appropriate material before class. I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect, but consider it a necessary evil.

The research was trickier. I wanted them to do actual research, as in research I’m actually working on right now. But I don’t have time to instruct them in all of the necessary background knowledge, and again, it was unclear to me how their backgrounds would translate into ability to contribute meaningfully to a research project. Also, as I’ve mentioned, my current project is brand-new and I don’t fully understand all aspects of it yet! I settled on having them create visualizations (via web pages) for some of the data we’re currently collecting, and presenting this data in a way that our target demographics would understand and that would teach them about how the system works. I figured they would be able to get at least something up and running by the end of the 3 weeks.

So, how is it going so far?

My instincts were correct for the classroom portion: intellectually, the students are on par with Carleton students. They are bright, engaged, and (mostly) delightfully wacky. They are doing the same level work in class, by and large, that my college students do. The one key difference: it is harder to keep them on task. So, for instance, my college students can typically stay on task for 25-30 minutes, whereas for the high schoolers it’s more like 10-15 minutes. This probably has something to do with different developmental stages. At any rate, as long as I factor this in to my daily class plan, I’m good.

Content-wise: well, it’s always hard to boil down an entire field into 15 hours of class instruction, but I think I did a good job for the most part selecting content. I’d definitely jettison some activities next time and refine others, and choose what to lecture about differently. The beauty of this program, though, is that I repeat the same class 3 times, so I have the opportunity this week to fix the things I didn’t like about how class went last week, and things are already going more smoothly.

The research portion is also going well. I made one major tactical mistake: I decided to give a brief overview of the computer networks portion of the research so that they could concentrate on the HCI aspect. By Thursday of last week, though, it was clear that my high school researchers were struggling in developing visualizations because they didn’t really understand what they were visualizing and why. So I spent all of our research time on Friday afternoon doing Networks 101 and giving a more detailed overview of the project. I told them they could ask any question, no matter how stupid they thought it was—and of course, there were no stupid questions and a ton of excellent questions. We covered a ton of ground, and by the end of the day they felt much more confident about what they were doing and why.

The other issue I’m facing is that I may have underestimated what they are capable of doing. Many are getting a little bored of the prototyping tool and so we decided they should learn HTML and actually code up the sites they’ve been prototyping. That’s been a big hit so far. Some of the groups may also end up doing some more with the raw data than I originally intended, which is also great. I had my undergraduate research students come in this afternoon and “consult” with each group, which I think both my high school students and my undergraduates enjoyed.

The whole experience has been fun and enriching and ultimately is helping me become a better teacher and better research mentor. That said, it is EXHAUSTING. This week is a bit better than last because the research is underway and I’m repeating last week’s curriculum, but it’s still very busy and very packed. Fitting all my other responsibilities, as chair and faculty member and research mentor, into these packed days has been quite the challenge. But at this point, even with the mental and physical exhaustion and the challenges, I would definitely do this again next year, and in fact am looking forward to doing this again next year.

Trusting the process

For the past 9+ weeks, I’ve been following a training plan for the half-marathon I’m running 2 weeks from this coming Saturday. The training plan is a typical one: each week has 4 days of running. One of the 4 days involves speedwork: intervals, a tempo run (i.e. “run at this pace for this number of minutes”), or hill repeats (run up a hill fast, walk down, do it again and again). One of the days is a long run. The long run gets progressively longer, as does the speedwork, as the weeks go by. And the plan ends with a “taper” period: after you’ve spent all this time building up your mileage and endurance, you cut back and let your body rest before the big day.

There are no guarantees, of course: the plan doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get injured or sick, or that you won’t wake up the day of the race facing 95 degree temperatures and 100% humidity and have to throw your time goals out the window. Rather, the idea is that if you put in the work and follow the plan, you put yourself in the best possible position to finish the race and meet whatever other (usually finishing time) goals you have.

It is easy, particularly as race day looms, for you to get cynical and to doubt the plan. How can you really be prepared to run 13.1 miles if your longest training run is only 12 miles? Why aren’t the long runs done at the pace you intend to race at, but rather at a much slower pace? How on earth do 6×400 intervals prepare you to run at race pace? At some point, you just have to trust the process, to know that each piece of the plan each week contributes to your execution on race day, and to go with it.

Trusting the process is something that I do often as a professor. When I teach, I trust that if I’ve prepared properly—digging up and digesting background readings, developing illustrative examples, working through in-class activities, anticipating likely questions and points of confusion—then class is most likely going to go well. I can’t guarantee this, of course—my students might come ill-prepared, or bring low energy to the class, or an activity might bomb in unintended ways—but most often, everything will be fine. In research, unexpected twists and turns often pop up, but if I follow the plan—think carefully and methodically, locate and read the relevant literature, weigh the evidence carefully, analyze and reanalyze the data, be super-observant and dig deeper into the data—eventually I’ll succeed, even if “success” is not how I originally pictured or intended it.

In a way, trusting the process is similar to taking the long-range view while paying attention to the day-to-day details. If you think too hard about the long-term goal, it can seem impossible to obtain. But if you get too caught up in the day-to-day, you can easily get discouraged. When you trust the process, you do the day-to-day while keeping your attention on the long-term goal. One motivates the other.

Trusting the process is something that’s often difficult for new researchers. New researchers may not know or understand the long-term goal. They may get caught up in the day-to-day, and possibly even overwhelmed by it. They may not see how the day-to-day and all the small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential tasks, all work to contribute to the end goal. This can be particularly true of new projects, where perhaps the end goal is still a bit fuzzy or in flux. And teaching trust of the process is tricky, because at some point, the person just has to buy into the idea.

This is definitely happening in my lab this summer, with my brand-new project and new-to-research students. So how am I teaching trust in the process? I’m not sure if I’m doing it well or even passably at this point. What I try to do is remind my students of why we’re doing what we’re doing and continually framing the problem and the research. I do it by being specific about the small tasks we need to do to get there. I remind them of what we’ve done so far and how what we’re doing next both builds upon that and gets us closer to our end goal.

So far the trust is not completely there, but that’s ok. They are skeptical, but game. They ask lots of questions, including lots of variations on “so why are we doing this again?”, which is exactly what they should be asking. They’re starting to figure out the “next small thing” on their own. I may not get them all the way to trusting the process by the end of the summer, but if I can at least get them partway there, I’ll consider that a victory.