Skip to main content

Summer research with students

There are many reasons I am fortunate to teach at Grinnell, some of which I have detailed elsewhere. One that drew me to Grinnell was the support for student-faculty research projects. It’s not that I want cheap, smart labor; rather, it’s that some of my most important teaching happens when I work with summer students. Because Grinnell provides summer research students with a small stipend [1] and academic credit, students are generally able to choose to do summer research regardless of their financial situation [2,4].

Why is summer research some of my most important teaching? Because it’s a very different kind of experience for our students. They take more ownership of the project and ownership can be a very powerful motivational factor. They get to experience more kinds of failure and frustration in summer projects than we normally allow them to experience in classes [5]. They get to experience making a wrong choice and seeing what they can pick up from the effects of the wrong choice [6]. They see that they can work well with others in unstructured situations [8].

Most importantly, they learn that they are good at what they do. Our top students know that about themselves [9]. Our middle-tier students are also good at what they do, but they often don’t realize it until they work on a large project. What do they learn from the project? They learn that they can build a large project [12]. They learn that they have a variety of skills that they can bring to their projects; it’s not all about coding. They discover that they can teach themselves new things, including things I don’t yet know or understand. They also discover that they can then teach those things to others. It thrills me to see the growth in knowledge and confidence that most students develop over the summer.

It surprises many people to hear that I find that I do better when I have larger research teams (say, eight to ten students) working on a few related projects, rather than smaller research teams (say, three to five students) working on one or two projects. Why? There are a variety of reasons. When we have a larger group, we can have more projects, which means that students can experiment in the first few weeks to find out which project is best for them. I also find that larger groups more often lead to the peer expertise experience; there’s some magic point at which students start asking each other for help, rather than turning to me for help. And, while I love helping students, I know it’s much better for them when they help each other.

Some faculty in other disciplines seem to believe that summer research students are a bit of a boondoggle for those of us who have large teams: We get compensated for involving students and we improve our research productivity. The first part of the claim is certainly true [14,15], but the second is less so. While there are summers that my students move my research forward and there are summers in which I could not even hope to do my project without the students [16], there are also many summers in which the time and energy I invested in my students would have produced more scholarship if I had instead invested that time and energy in my scholarship. But that’s okay; the learning outcomes make it worth it.

Not every student can participate in summer research with me or with the other CS faculty. But that’s okay, that’s why we have CSC 322, our software design practicum [17]. It gives them a chance to fail. It gives them a chance to work in an environment in which no one knows everything that is going on and they therefore have to teach themselves and others things. And, when we’re lucky, it gives them a strong sense of accomplishment.

[1] It ends up being about $8.50 per hour, which is enough for most students to get by for the summer. It is also less than students get for working on NSF REU projects at other institutions. It’s been about five years since we’ve changed that amount; we should be paying them much more.

[2] Grinnell also has a process by which high-need students can be exempt from the summer contribution if they do research at Grinnell; that process is way too opaque [3].

[3] It used to be that every student who did summer research had their contribution waived, but that’s not the case anymore. I probably need to draft a note about the need for that process to be more transparent. I’ll plan that note for some time this week. Stay tuned!

[4] There is evidence that cultural factors lead some students, particularly first-generation college students, to avoid summer opportunities like internships and research because their families do not understand the long-term benefits of those opportunities. In order to address those issues, we need to start by making sure that students get paid for the work.

[5] We try to provide enough support that they don’t fail any class. But we learn from mistakes, so we allow small mistakes in our classes.

[6] Well, we can’t always pick up from wrong choices. In at least one project, the students allowed one of their more outspoken members to make a choice about the Web servers; that student believed a few ’blog posts about the best approach; it took until about two-thirds of the way through the summer for us to decide that it was the wrong approach, at which point we had to struggle through with the less good approach [7].

[7] Since that student is probably reading this musing, I will note that if we were doing the project now, the choice might be right. But the software they chose was not rich enough at the time for the features we needed, which meant we needed to implement too many of them.

[8] My summer students will tell you that unstructured may be an understatement for my summer projects.

[9] Okay, I used to think our top students know that about themselves. But I’ve heard some our best students tell me that they suffered from imposter syndrome while they were undergraduates. If they do, I’m sure that everyone does [10].

[10] I must also admit that there are a few students who have too much confidence in themselves [11].

[11] No, that is not intended as a dig at the student who made the choice described above. They should be confident.

[12] Or at least that they can make significant progress on a large project.

[14] It’s less true now; in exchange to moving to better sabbaticals (a half year at full pay after three years or a full year at full pay after six years), we have reduced the compensation for summer research.

[15] Some of the cash compensation gets spent on events for the students: lunches, food for game nights, and such.

[16] The past few summers have been great. Neither MIST nor the Code Camps could have happened without the awesome team of students I had.

[17] CSC 322’s official name is Team-Based Software Development for Community Organizations. I call it the software design practicum because it’s shorter.

Version 1.0 of 2017-04-17.