CRA-DMP Evaluation Report #1

The Students' Point of View: Issues Involved in Participating in the DMP

III. Students as "part of a larger whole:" Involving students in the research process and the graduate school environment creates a more successful DMP experience

In section II of this report, we discussed the ways in which immersing students in a graduate school environment increased their understanding of the academic field of CS&E as a way of helping them to more clearly define their career interests. This section serves to present how involving students in a collaborative research process is critical to their having a successful experience in the program and also achieving the outcomes discussed in section II.

III.A. Students benefited most from doing something "real" that contributed to their mentor's research

In our discussions with students, they emphasized the importance of doing a project that was related to, and had an impact on their mentor's research group. These students expressed that their project felt "real" to them precisely because it contributed to the research of someone professionally involved in CS&E. Virtually all students had previously worked only in the context of doing structured undergraduate assignments, and for many, this experience helped them to realize that they were capable of contributing valuable information to the field.

I really liked [research] a lot. Knowing that it was something new. Actually contributing to a project that wasn't something that tons of people had done before and it was for other people also, not just ourselves.
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R: I was actually writing programs to do things, and before I was just writing them as a homework assignment. You know, "Do this kind of a program to get an A in the class." They were actually useful; I've never written useful programs.

I: How did you feel about that?

R: That was pretty neat. I was pretty proud of myself.

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I: Do you feel like the work you did this summer was important?

R: Oh yeah. Important to me and important to them because it's their research.

I: And how is it important to you?

R: Because it, like I said before, reinforced my confidence. Also it will give me a sense of having done something real so to speak. I'm used to just doing projects for academics -- "Just turn this in, get a grade and then throw it away." And this is something that's going to be used for something real, real important.

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So I made this program, a graphical interface type thing so they could draw it up and it would have all the information they needed to convert it to another format, and they could use it with other stuff that they needed. So, it was pretty cool. It was actually useful. I was surprised!
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Things are starting to come together and we've realized that we actually have done something real, you know? It took a long time to get into this, but that's because it was a whole new area of computer science that we were getting into, and we didn't know anything about it. But in the end, we did accomplish some things, and academically we actually did do something that will contribute to the people we're working with, their research. So academically, we really felt like we weren't just sort of extraneous, and we did do some important things and accomplish things. I think I'd like to just stress how great it was that we were able to work with the [graduate] students, and really get involved in the lab. And we were given our own computer and...You know, we really felt involved and part of what was going on.

One 1994 student commented that the research she did was applicable not just to her mentor's project, but was also valuable to her experiences in the business community.

I: What did you think of the research?

R: Very interesting - very interesting, very applicable. Some of it was cutting edge. When I got out into the working world and they needed something done, it was very similar to what I had done, and I understood all the problems and the drawbacks , all the different options.

III.B. Students were motivated to do research when they were included as contributing members of the research team

Students were more motivated and inspired to do research when their mentor treated them as valuable members of the research group, capable of providing input and direction about their research.

I just wrote some tools that [the graduate student] needed in order to do some of his analysis. And I was helping. And I really did feel involved, because when I analyzed this data, I got to see the results. And I felt like, "Wow!" [I] really felt like I was part of that research. And now I'm working with [another graduate student] and I'm running some tests. And I'm coming up with more results, and making graphs and charts. And so it's like I'm coming up with some ideas, and some kind of take on the whole thing.
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I was also working with [my mentor] like an equal. We were both looking at a problem, and everything one of us said mattered. It wasn't like, "You are the undergraduate, therefore you are stupid." It wasn't like that at all. It was much more equal. [My mentor] is way more experienced than I am and very, very intelligent, and she knows about these kind of problems, or at least she's been working on them. It felt really neat to feel like I could have something to say about the kind of problem too. That was really good. I really liked that.
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I think I came up here expecting a pecking order, expecting to be given a lot scutwork to do, but I'm not! I'm being pulled right into their research project! Right at the heart of it, and I wasn't expecting that. It's been a confidence booster for me, and every step of the way, [my mentor] who's been very encouraging, and when I get a little bit intimidated, she'll say, "No, no, no, no, no. Don't worry about this."

III.C. When students felt excluded from the collaborative research process, they became less motivated and felt isolated

A few students discussed that they felt excluded from the collaborative research process as a result of being assigned to a project that was irrelevant to their mentor's research or not working with members of the research team. These students stated that they felt isolated from the research process and became less motivated to work on their project.

R: They hadn't really decided on anything until we got there and they said "Oh, well, OK. You can do this." And it was something kind of insignificant.

I: Insignificant to what you wanted to do?

R: No, to anybody. It seemed like it was just something to keep me busy, I'm not sure. I think they had high hopes, but I don't think they realized that what they wanted me to do couldn't really be done with the tools they gave me to do it with. So I ended up with a project that probably is not useable.

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I would've liked to have had someone to sort of go back and forth with and bounce things off of and maybe get some ideas from. I didn't really like being left high and dry so to speak...And my mentor, she admitted herself she was no programmer so she couldn't really help me with the coding.
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Actually the signals I've been getting is that I'm more of a nuisance here than a help. Like, when I have questions, nobody wants to take the time to answer them. I have a lot of questions, and when I'd ask the graduate student he finally said, "Well, you're going to have to stop come asking me so many questions. Write them all down and ask me them all at one time." [My mentor] always seems really busy, so I don't talk with her much. So yeah, I kind of just feel like I'm more of a nuisance than a help here.

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