Summer Research with Undergraduates Plus Fun

Sam Kottler, Garrett Figueroa, Jerrell Cockerham, Hanqui Li, and Zhaopeng Li, standing on the shoulders of giants at Colorado State University.

I had my first-ever summer research students this year: sophomore Jerrell Cockerham and senior Zhaopeng Li worked together on a problem about row complete Latin squares, and senior Sam Kottler is working on a cool project in locally recoverable codes. They have all done very good work, and it has been fun for me, too.  I met with the students most days for five weeks, and they’ve written up their results, which I hope will find their way into published papers sooner than later.  I like my students and it was really worth it. It was also a lot more work than I had anticipated.  “What a deal! They’ll work on my research problems and learn a lot, and I’ll get the answers I want,” I thought. “I’ll meet with them each a couple times a week for an hour and I’ll get so much of my own research done in the rest of the time.” Indeed, they did work on my research problems, I think they learned a lot, and they did figure out some very nice things.  Sam is still working I have a good feeling that he will prove even more.  But the fact is that I worked really hard, didn’t get anything of my own done during those weeks, and I still felt like I wasn’t entirely keeping up as a research mentor.  Where did all that time go? I still don’t know.  I do know now that a couple times a week is probably not going to work when undergraduates are learning a whole new area and learning how to do research for the first time.  I also learned that it’s really hard to motivate myself to read drafts and make good comments when I just finished an intense bout of teaching. Next time I’m going in with my eyes open, and I’m taking a few weeks off between classes and student research responsibilities.  That said, I think it was a success, and I thought I’d share a couple of non-research activities that we did together that were really fun.

One of the best things I did with this group was to organize a lunch for all the research students in the department and their mentors, so everyone could talk about their progress and just hang out for a while. This was pretty fun. It was the first time that many of the students had tried to describe what they were working on to anyone else. As we all know, this can be really challenging, and it was cool to see them struggle with it and figure out how to tell the story. One of the mentors practiced a conference presentation on us, based on work that had been done with a student, and the students seemed to engage and be able to see themselves talking about their own work in the future.

Another fun activity: with some of the other research students from Colorado College, we took a field trip up to Fort Collins and met with undergraduate research groups at Colorado State University led by Rachel Pries and Patrick Shipman.  The students got to meet each other and again share what they were working on and hear about what it was like to study at a totally different kind of school.  Both CSU groups were doing really interesting things—studying curves related to coding theory for one group, and modeling a chemical/physical process using differential equations for another.  We had a lunch with everyone together, visited the dynamical systems group’s lab, and then met with the staff member who runs parts of the graduate program. The students had plenty of questions about the graduate school admissions process and some were interested to hear that yes, a teaching or research assistantship usually covers your tuition and a living stipend.  We met with the wonderful Research Scientist Elly Farnell, who told us about her work in the Pattern Analysis Lab and gave the students another chance to talk about their own research projects. Not only is her work fascinating, but somehow talking to Elly the students really hit their stride in their own exposition.  Having heard them talk about their work many times, I was silently cheering as they gave their best explanations yet.  Made me hope that my talks just get better and better as I give them, too.  Our final stop was visiting with my old friend, CSU Statistician Ben Prytherch (sharing his music page because why not), whose enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.  He asked the students what they were working on and explained a few of his favorite statistical ideas/techniques. At one point he said, “Oh, let me just make a quick applet for this,” and he whipped up some visualization with a sliding bar. Again, the students had lots of questions, and Ben was an amazing stats ambassador. Overall, it was a great experience and the students came out a little more connected to students and faculty at another regional school, and enthusiastic about research and maybe about graduate school. I am really grateful to everyone who took the time to hang out with us at Colorado State.

Back to work for me!  Let me know if you are doing any fun summer research activities in the comments.

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