CRA-DMP Evaluation Report #1

The Mentors' Point of View: Issues Involved in Mentoring in the DMP

II. The Mentors' View of the DMP Students

In this section we will discuss the mentors' views of the DMP students following their participation in the program.

II.A. Mentors needed to invest time preparing and guiding their students in their research projects

Most mentors commented that they expected to spend time introducing their DMP student to the research topic due to the fact that undergraduates have limited background and experience in CS&E. When mentors were asked to give advice to faculty considering participating in the program, many commented that the faculty member should be prepared to invest time in the program.

Well, I think they have to be prepared to invest time. You know, in the summer people often have other things that they want to do. You have to be around, or someone has to be around.
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The second thing is that the mentor should be prepared that she is going to [spend] quite a bit of time teaching the students at the beginning.

Virtually all mentors stated that their DMP students were accustomed to a more passive mode of learning in which she absorbed information from instructors and textbooks, rather than actively creating information through research. As a result, the mentors emphasized that the students needed more direction and guidance throughout their projects.

Again it comes back to the fact that most undergraduate students have the experience of this absorbing knowledge that the professors give them and do not really contribute to the research. And it seems to me that this was an experience that was different from her class experience. I think that a lot of students that go into graduate school do so because they of course want to get advanced courses, but often miss this aspect and this is what I really wanted to focus on.
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R: Undergraduates aren't really prepared to do research, so they need a lot of hands- on help. And most undergraduates can help with some pieces of doing research, but they can't really do research on their own.

I: Why?

R: I don't think they have the preparation. And they're not kind of thinking in the right way you know, they're thinking in terms of doing assignments kind of thing rather than sort of thinking open ended about problems.

I: Just because they haven't been exposed to that type of area?

R: Yeah, I think it takes some time to kind of learn how to do research. And I think most undergraduates haven't learned that.

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R: Because [undergraduates] are not sure what they want to do, and their background is a lot more limited, it's a lot of hand-holding. It's more of directing them what to read and motivating them. And basically teaching them. Whereas for graduate students, they know what they want, and they have the background, and you can discuss ideas and things with them and bounce ideas off each other, so it's very different. With undergrads, it's more of a one-way street, with a graduate student it's two-way.

Evaluator Point of View

Many mentors we interviewed had little or no experience working with undergraduates in a research-oriented setting such as that of the DMP. In many cases, the mentor needed to provide their DMP students with more guidance and teaching than a graduate student. Therefore, although it is important to treat the DMP student "like a graduate student," there are times when this is not appropriate. Most undergraduates are unable to perform graduate level research in a ten week program and thus it is necessary for the mentors to balance the needs of the student as an undergraduate and her capabilities to do research like a graduate student.

II.B. Mentors were impressed with their students' initiative and capabilities

In spite of the students' low level of background as undergraduates in CS&E, many mentors described their student as extremely motivated and capable of completing a project in the ten weeks of the program.

I was concerned that maybe the tight time frame would not allow anything substantive to be done, but I think in both of these cases we were able to identify something that could be done, and since both of the students sponsored by this program they had excellent backgrounds, very highly motivated, very capable. There was no problem with them sort of getting something substantive done.
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I: What did you think of the work your students did?

R: It was very good. We were very happy with the things that they did. They showed a lot of initiative and a lot of independence. Some of the results that they came up with will hopefully - there was a lot of rush at the end before everybody left to get a whole bunch of simulations done, and that data will probably be incorporated into a paper. We had some theory results and we needed some quantitative studies, so they were doing that.

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I: Okay, and how did [the DMP] go?

R: Good! It went really well. ... We had good people. ... They came in, they just dove into the problem. They learned an awful lot, they actually accomplished some things that were beneficial to us. They came up with ideas we never thought of, so I think all in all it was fun to be with them. All in all it worked well.

II.C. Lack of background and motivation of DMP students could inhibit a positive experience

II.C.1. Students who lack basic skills in CS&E may be unable to do research

Some mentors stated that their student lacked the background necessary to do a research project that would be interesting and productive to either the student or the mentor. Some mentors felt that their student's lack of basic skills prevented her from doing research in the time frame of the program.

She said she didn't have a formal class in C. She was just kind of expected to pick that up on her own [by her home institution], or maybe she had one quarter but hadn't done anything elaborate with it. Anyway, her skills were just really poor, and so you give her something that should take a couple hours and it would be like days later before you'd get it. So, she's like, "Oh, this is what we're dealing with!" She just wasn't prepared. For what I needed her for, this programming had to be just a tool that she used. She had to really get a new idea, a new concept, and get the research plan down, and she was so concerned with the low level details that she just didn't do very well.

In fact, some mentors commented that sophomore-level students may not have the necessary background and sophistication to do research in the ten-week time frame of the program. These mentors expressed that only junior level students should be admitted into the program, because they would have taken upper-division classes that would give them the background and sophistication to do projects that could interest both the mentor and the student.

I: Would you want to see that changed? I mean for students coming in, to see them have more background?

R: I think it helps to have them at least at the junior level, that they finish their junior year, that they've had more Computer Science classes. I think last year was after their sophomore year and they just didn't have enough Computer Science classes yet. I think it's a lot more beneficial to them and to the mentor if they have had more background.

I: Is this something you'd like to see changed about the program?

R: Yeah I think, well I think it is more beneficial if they do it between their junior and senior year. I think you can give them better projects, more interesting projects and they get a better experience, they're doing a lot more of it on their own. I think that's better, for their sake. I mean they're learning to do more of independent work, which they probably don't get much of in their regular class work, they're told exactly what to do step by step probably...Well I think I mean the difference between research and course work is that you're kind of given more freedom to do things, you're supposed to be a lot more independent in your thinking and your work. And you can only do that if you have adequate background to do it. And I think between the junior and senior year you have a lot, you've done a lot your junior year in terms of your major requirements to be able to do that.

Evaluator Point of View

This section indicates that a successful DMP experience for the student may depend upon her background level. If a student lacks the basic skills in CS&E, she may be unable to conduct research. As stated in the student section, students felt more positively about their experience when they could contribute to their mentor's research program. If, because of a lack of background, a student is only able to participate in small peripheral projects that have no impact on the mentor's research, it may negatively affect her view of academic research and may impede the goals of the program.

Evaluator Question

Should there be a minimal background requirement for the students?

II.C.2. Mentors who perceived their student as unmotivated viewed their participation in the DMP as a "waste of time"

A few mentors stated that their student was unmotivated and applied minimal effort toward her research project. When mentors perceived their student to be unmotivated, they viewed their experience in the DMP as a "waste of time" and as not being beneficial to either the student or the mentor.

I hate to say anything that makes the project look like a bad idea 'cause I think it's a wonderful idea. I just got one of the losers. That's really what I got. I just got someone that wasn't mature enough to handle it, didn't have the background, and didn't have the right attitude. So it was just a lose, lose situation.
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R: I think [the second year the DMP] involved a lot of my time and it wasn't clear to me that there was any payoff at all.

I: In terms of research for you and for the students?

R: In terms of I didn't feel at the end of the summer that I had spent this time productively. I didn't feel like they had gotten anything out of the program and so it wasn't clear to me that that was the useful thing to do with my time. The first year I felt that both of the students had gotten a lot out of the program and so I could justify having spent all that time on it.

Virtually all mentors who characterized their students as unmotivated commented that a positive experience in the DMP depended upon both the mentor and the student contributing fully to the research process. The following mentor stated that when she perceived that the student was not motivated to work, the mentor "stepped back" because she did not see any value in investing time in a student who was not applying herself.

I think what happens is when you realize that you've got someone that just isn't quite what you wanted or just doesn't have the background, then you kind of slack off and you're going, "Gosh, it takes too much time to get anything out of this person." They're only going to be here for 10 or 12 weeks. If I have to hold their hand through the whole thing...And especially with the [DMP] there was no faculty compensation at all, so it was like, you've got to pretty much be a self-starter 'cause I can't hold your hand every day for 12 weeks, you've got to do your own thing. Part of it, I think, is that the faculty member themselves sort of pulls back and says, "Well, we've got a loser here!" Not that you mean to do that, but you can only afford to meet them halfway, and if they're not going to meet you halfway then you just kind of go, "We'll chalk this one up to experience." And you try to get them to do the best they can, but really this is an independent thing. They have got to do it on their own. You just couldn't hold their hand through it. Some people are self-starters, and some people aren't.

These mentors felt that they lacked the resources to motivate their student to work during the ten week period of the DMP because the students were paid directly by the CRA.

But the attitude thing, I don't think you really know that about a person until you get them 'cause it really is an ideal situation. You're not punching a clock, even though I tried to sort of pretend she was. She knew she wasn't. In fact, the last couple of days of the whole thing, she just didn't show up...That's just the sort of the attitude -- "I'm just doing what I need to do, and I hope you can deal with what time I can get here."

One mentor suggested that the CRA have the student payment commensurate with the work they accomplished during the program.

Maybe that's what I would change about it. There ought to be some way where we rank them on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end. They all get $3,000, say, but only the 10's get $5,000 - you know what I'm saying? - so that they've got a motivation to excel. That's really the problem, is because she knew that she had her $5,000, or whatever it was, just for showing up every day. There was no motivation to do really well. There was no concern with punching a clock or anything even though I would say, "I want to know how many hours you're putting in each day." But it was hard to control because we're not set up to punch clocks here. But that's the only thing I would try and do.

Evaluator Point of View?

Inevitably there are students who experience difficulties in any program. In some cases these problems result from personal issues and little can be done to alter the student's experience in the program. However, in some situations the problems may result from circumstances involving program implementation. As discussed in this section of the report, a few mentors described their students as unmotivated. Our interviews indicated that there was a disjuncture between the student and mentor perceptions of the student's intentions. While mentors characterized their student as unmotivated, the students expressed that they wanted to contribute, but felt lost and without direction. These students lacked the confidence to assert themselves and felt shy about asking "basic" or "obvious" questions of the mentor. The students thus retreated from interaction with the mentor and this was misinterpreted as a lack of motivation and interest in working on the research project. We came to realize that initially these students may need more structure and guidance from the mentors in order to proceed in the research and develop confidence. Through gaining knowledge and experience in programs such as the DMP these students can develop independence and goal orientation.

Evaluator Suggestion

One possible way to solve such a problem is to directly address this issue with the student and/or suggest that the student fill out a mid-program evaluation.

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