Slacking with Undergraduate Researchers

Summer is in full swing, and so are my first undergraduate researchers. Two of my calculus students from last year are working with me on a neat little project that’s funded through my school. I’ve never coordinated undergraduate research before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but so far we’re right on schedule and they’re working (mostly) independently.

Since the three of us wouldn’t always be on campus all summer, I wanted a good way to make sure we were communicating and focusing on our goals. My students are only sophomores, and while they’re good workers, I knew they’d need more oversight than more experienced students might. I also knew that a hundred different email threads would be a terrible way to do all this, so I started looking into other options. I’ve played around with project management software like Asana, Basecamp, and Trello before, and thought I might give one of them a shot. While they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, these sites offer ways to easily develop and assign tasks to different team members, track progress on those tasks, and facilitate team communication. I know people who use one of these sites just to manage their own to-do lists, and they’re definitely useful organizational tools.

As tempting as it was to throw myself into learning a new piece of productivity software, I ultimately decided this was probably overkill. If I had a larger group, or multiple groups working on different projects, I would definitely consider one of those options just for my sanity. But since we were only managing the three of us I figured we could get away with something simpler.

Screenshot from the IOS interface

Screenshot from the iOS interface

Enter Slack. I first heard about Slack from my obsession with the FiveThirtyEight politics crew, who post their weekly Slack chats on their website. At first glance, it’s just a messaging app and website, but it’s been a vital tool for our group. I have my students post updates every time they sit down to work. They describe what they’re working on and what they’ve found, even if they just went down a dead end. We make note of potential leads to follow up on later, links to relevant papers or books, and nascent conjectures. You can star messages to remember for later, pin them to make them stand out, even react with emoji if you are so inclined (I’m not, but it might be a good motivator for the students).

It’s not just for text either – we post screenshots of our programs, photos of our work, and upload files, though we usually use a separate Dropbox for that. Slack also supports separate ICQ-like channels for different conversations and private messaging, though we’ve only stuck with the one chat for now.

The biggest benefit for me is how searchable our work is. I sometimes have a hard time finding an email I want to reference, especially from my phone. I love that we have all of our conversations in one place, and that I can quickly find the message I want. It’s become an electronic lab notebook/collective memory for the whole group. An unexpected perk is that my students seem much more responsive to the chat than to email. And honestly, that’s probably true for me as well.

This might seem like a lot of fuss over what’s basically a beefed-up version of AOL instant messenger, but we’ve really enjoyed this tool and it’s been great for our communication and productivity. If any of you are using other products like this in your research, please let me know in the comments!


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3 Responses to Slacking with Undergraduate Researchers

  1. Avatar Harley Eades says:

    This summer is also my first time working with undergraduate researchers. I have a similar setup, but we are using and each student has their own git repository that they have to use to check in weekly entries in their research journal, and keep all of their work within the repo. Whenever they push content to the repo I get an email. We can also chat, and comment/react to files — even down to the line of a file — in the repo on the website. I am finding it to work really well. Github has lots of cool project management features that workout very well. For example, we can easily see a break down of all the additions or changes to any files when the student pushes to the repo. which allows me to easily give feedback. You can see any example here:

    This setup can work very easily for mathematics research too I think. The files in the repo would be the LaTex sources.

    • Avatar smalec says:

      I didn’t even think of using github. That’s a great idea!

      • Avatar Harley Eades says:

        Thanks! One more point about Github. You can use the issues system for more than bugs or problems. It can be used essentially as a QA platform, TODO tracker, and a bug/feature tracking system. So it would work similar to slack. The website works fairly well from my phone too.

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