Kicking off a virtual research summer

Before everything in the world changed, I hired two amazing student researchers for the summer. Both rising juniors, both amazingly talented, both with skill sets and interests perfectly fit to my summer project. Both completely new to research.

I fantasized about poring over new datasets together, teasing insights out of troubleshooting comments. Sketching out schema and models on a shared whiteboard in the lab. Daily check-in meetings and random coffee/cookie breaks. Puzzling over what research questions we could feasibly start to answer in 7 weeks. Watching my student collaborators learn and grow and become independent problem solvers. In short, all of the reasons I so very much enjoy mentoring students in research.

Instead, we have Virtual Summer Research, with the three of us in different cities spread across 2 time zones. Much like the spring, all of us confined to small Zoom boxes, Slack messages, and git commits.

We’re now in Week 2 of the Great Virtual Summer Research Experiment, and things are….going. Actually, that’s not at all fair. They are going quite well, all things considered. My students are learning just how much they don’t know about programming in Python. As am I. 🙂 They’re playing with BigData queries and figuring out more complex SQL than they used in Software Design with me this year. We’re all learning how to write web scrapers and use NLTK. I think we’re pretty close to settling on a specific set of research questions.

So, how do you mentor brand new research students, students who’ve never done research before and were hoping to learn what computer science research is, when you’re all online?

Well, honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. But here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Drastically modify my expectations. I’m usually pretty laid back about setting super specific deliverables, because there are so many unknowns when pursuing a research question and I find that following my students’ lead usually yields excellent results. We’re all exhausted after spring term and unsure about fall and beyond. Because of that, my goal for my students this summer is: let’s play with some datasets and new-to-us tools and learn something we didn’t know at the start of the summer. Any progress is forward progress.
  2. Daily short morning check-in meetings via Zoom. Daily morning meetings are the norm in my research lab in any year, in-person or virtual. Everyone reports out on what they’ve been working on, where they’re stuck, and what they want to work on that day. With our CDT/PDT split, meetings happen a bit later (11 am) than in an in-person summer (usually 9 or 10 am). On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to get some of my own work done, run/workout, and wrangle/feed my night owl kiddos before the daily check-in.
  3. Building community. I make sure to start our daily check-ins by checking in with everyone — how are you feeling, what fun things are you up to, etc. Yesterday I found a site of 200 getting-to-know-you questions, and you can bet that I will abuse the heck out of those questions this summer.
  4. Asynchronous updates over Slack. We use Slack throughout the day as a low-key way to keep each other updated. We all post questions or issues we’ve run into. So far it’s just me answering the questions, but I suspect as the students become more comfortable with each other and with the research, they will chime in.
  5. Modeling question asking and help seeking. Based on lessons learned teaching online in the spring, I’ve tried to be more explicit than normal in modeling question asking and help seeking. I share my own mistakes throughout the day. I walk students through how I found bugs in my code/queries and through how I’m debugging the code/queries. When I learn something new, I post that, too. I want students to know that it’s ok to mess up and ok to ask for help — and that in fact messing up is par for the course when doing research.
  6. More specific how-tos. I didn’t realize just how much time I spend physically showing students how to do something (install a script, use a module, debug code) until now. When students struggle, I can’t just sit down with them in pair programming mode, with them driving and me directing (or vice versa), as I normally do. So I’m writing a lot more sample scripts than usual, and creating very specific step-by-step documentation. (I probably could create some videos, too, but I haven’t done that yet.) As a bonus, I’ll definitely use this documentation in the future to orient new students to the research.

In a normal summer, we build community among our students within Computer Science and within the broader STEM at Carleton community. Students work side-by-side in the same lab as the other CS research students. STEM professors talk about their research at weekly Tea Talks. This virtual summer features a weekly virtual professional development seminar for STEM students, run by our STEM Program Manager, with topics such as how to read a scientific paper, how to use library resources effectively, STEM careers/grad school, and how to build a relationship with your research mentor. In CS, we’re working on ways to re-create Cookie Hour, and we have a (so far lightly utilized) Slack workspace for everyone doing summer research as a way to try and re-create “computer lab culture”. Only about half of our summer students in CS have started, so we’ll see if traffic picks up when more people are researching.

Here are a couple of other things I’d like to try:

  • Co-working time. My dismal office hours failure this spring has me thinking about ways to encourage office hours attendance. One idea: rebrand some number of office hours as “drop-in co-work time”. Open up Zoom or Google Hangouts, and work “side-by-side” as we’d do in my office or in the computer lab. This mode of working would be especially ideal as we dive into new datasets — staring at the same data and thinking aloud as we’d do in an in-person summer.
  • Presenting results virtually. We do a lot of informal show-and-tell at daily check-ins during in-person summers. We haven’t done this yet, virtually. I want to get into the habit of frequent, low-stakes presentations, as a way to share work in progress. Bonus: this will help hone our Zoom skills, preparing us all for another term or year of at least partial online learning (which seems likely at this point).

If you’re working virtually with research students this summer, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. How are you building community? What’s worked and what’s failed? What tools have you found most and least useful? Comment here, and/or tweet and @ me (@drcsiz). Let’s continue the conversation.