Thursday, September 13, 2012

Undergraduate Colloquium Presentation: Taking Pride in Students' Accomplishments

Yesterday, two undergraduates from the Computer Science Department delivered a departmental colloquium about the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Paige Rodeghero spent the summer at the University of Alabama, and Lyle Franklin spent his at UIUC; Lyle also reported on his Summer 2011 experience at Notre Dame.

Before I describe the colloquium presentation itself, it is worth explaining the background. Paige is in one of my courses this semester, and several times she alluded to the excellent summer experience. At the conclusion of one of our meetings, I reminded her that I would like to hear some details about it. Hearing her enthusiasm—along with a statement that all CS majors should be participating—I suggested an undergraduate colloquium presentation. She eagerly accepted. Even this part of the story, taken in isolation, is very inspiring to me: a student went out into the world and had a positive, research-oriented, potentially career-altering experience, and she embraced the opportunity to share it with her fellow undergraduates. Fantastic!

I met with both Paige and Lyle separately the week before the presentation to assist in planning. Both demonstrated laudable preparation skills, having thought not just about the content they wanted to share but also the best means for structuring and expressing it. I regret that we could not all meet at once, since I didn't realize that Paige and Lyle had not met before the day of the presentation!

The colloquium presentation started at 3PM. There were about fifteen people in attendance, mostly undergraduates. After my brief introduction and a few comments about the NSF REU program, Paige described her experience at the University of Alabama. She had many pictures of her collaborators and her work environment, and I am certain this was valuable to the audience. As I recall from my undergraduate days, it was hard to imagine the space in which graduate school happens. Her sharing these images demystified these aspects of a researcher's lifestyle. She made brief mention of being able to take graduate-level courses as well; if time permitted, I would have liked to have heard more about these experiences, since again, it can be hard for undergraduates to imagine. Paige emphasized the strong bonds formed with her cohort as they worked together, studied together, exercised together, and relaxed together.

Next, Lyle described his experiences at Notre Dame and UIUC. He made a very powerful point about personal responsibility: "Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it." He described how some of the REU participants seemed intent on avoiding work rather than embracing it, noting that there were no external repercussions for failure. In contrast, his dedication yielded first-place awards in research presentations, an accepted patch to NetBeans, and a submission to ICSE—the top conference in the field. That paper is still under review, so I won't say much about the particulars; rather, let me go in another direction and describe why I found this part of the presentation so powerful. 

Lyle had just finished talking about the "R&D" part of a systems research project: that stressful period where you try to build a software system to explore a research scenario and then evaluate it on voluminous test data, hoping it won't go down in flames. Once they were confident in their results, the team turned to "dissemination" mode. Lyle did not expect the intensity of research writing, and he and his collaborators put in an estimated 80 hours into the week before submission, uploading it just a few minutes before the 6AM deadline. The audience expressed audible surprise at this seemingly-herculean effort, and Lyle explained that he had the same reaction at first, but that his advisor and graduate student mentor both seemed to thrive on it—"It's what they lived for."

I inquired after the length of the paper, knowing the order of magnitude to expect. Lyle brought up the ten-page document and paged through it, showing some prose along with a few charts, data tables, and algorithm specifications. He explained how he had to learn LaTeX to do the writing, and he was glad he did. He also explained the process, which of course is familiar to academics: he and his partner would write a draft and take it to their advisor, who would cross out large sections and heavily mark up the rest, and thus the next iteration began.

Here, in this ten minute discussion, Lyle had laid out for his peers what it really meant to be a researcher. To many students, the lives of professors are invisible aside from three contact hours per week. Not just students: many legislators and voters seem to think the same way! Lyle described not just the process of creating new knowledge—the scholarship of discovery—but also the emotional highs and lows around the research career. Lyle clearly has the mettle for a top-tier graduate school, an I hope that through this presentation, even more of our students were inspired to strive for the same. If nothing else, I hope that they learned to empathize with the scholar's life.

Lyle's and Paige's presentations were wonderfully complementary. At the conclusion, they provided recommendations regarding how students can get involved in an REU next year. As I said when I introduced them, I am bursting with pride over their accomplishments and how well they represented Ball State Computer Science to the rest of the world. A great follow-up to this presentation would be a talk by those students who have done summer internships and Google Summer of Code—let me know if you're interested!


  1. I'm definitely up for a talk about GSoC, I was going to wait until the 2013 program is actually announced. It's never a sure thing!

    1. That sounds great! Then looking over the variety of options can be part of the presentation as well. Do you remember about what time in the year this happens?