We’re already back to school here at Hood, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on my summer undergraduate research experience. Overall it was very positive. My students met all the goals I had for them, got to present at MathFest, and we all had a pretty great time.
I’d mentioned in a previous post that we used Slack extensively to coordinate our research. It ended up being a collaborative lab notebook of a sort, as well as an email replacement. I loved not having to search through email threads to find relevant bits of conversation or documented work. I loved it so much I’m trying to think of how I can force my classes and my department to use it with me.
When one of my students had to leave town for a couple of weeks, we also used an app called Baiboard in conjunction with Google Hangouts to keep in touch. Baiboard served as our collaborative whiteboard while we were chatting on Google, so that we could see what the others were writing without having to try to type things on the fly, or hold paper up to the camera. I will definitely use this app again for things like online office hours.
This summer was also my first experience teaching students to use LaTeX, and it went much better than I expected. They collaborated on Overleaf to write up their results and make their Beamer presentation for MathFest. They even got comfortable with the tikz package for their graphics. The only real help I gave them was a couple old documents of mine to modify, and they picked the rest up incredibly quickly (somehow). One student has a lot of CS experience so I’m not entirely surprised that he adapted well, but even my normally-computer-phobic student became a LaTeX whiz almost immediately. I think at that point in the summer they might have just been excited to have problems whose solutions were Googleable.
They wrote their presentation and practiced it for a couple of my department members, who had excellent advice. I haven’t even seen that many undergraduate talks, much less helped anyone write one, so I was very grateful for their experience. We ended up scaling down the scope of the talk a little and let them focus on a few main aspects of their results, which helped the cohesiveness a lot. The students rehearsed more than I ever have for anything in my life, and when the time came to present, they got over their nerves and just killed it. I was beaming.
Bringing students to a conference did present some interesting logistical challenges: spending three days – including about 12 hours in the car – with two rising sophomores meant I definitely overheard more juicy student gossip than I ever needed to. And I just assumed that they’d know how to get around a city on their own, even though they haven’t spent much time away from their parents. This proved false when I got a call asking me to rescue them from across town when they’d gotten on the wrong bus by accident.
But we all had a really good time at MathFest. I enjoyed getting to interact with these students outside of the classroom, and getting to know them outside of their mathematical interests. Turns out they’re pretty cool people! And they loved getting to see aspects of mathematics they’d never been exposed to, though I think they found a lot of the conference just plain overwhelming.
I probably won’t try to apply for this research grant next summer, as I’d rather take a break from managing a group and work exclusively on my own stuff for awhile. But I will definitely be doing this again in the future. I think this was about the best first experience I could have hoped for, and I think my students felt the same.