Like many computer-engineering students, Juan Carlos Roman was bright, motivated and had a wealth of head knowledge. But he had limited practical experience or exposure to research. After only one day at the Vis Center he was presented with his challenge: to rewrite the software for a multi projector display system used for laparoscopic surgery so it could process HD video.
“There was already code done from a few years ago which was not working anymore due to changes in hardware, Operating System, compilers, etc. To make the programs work again I needed to update or redo lines of code.” Roman wrote in his blog. It would be a huge undertaking.
Along with five other undergraduate students, Roman spent 8 weeks this summer in the Vis U program, doing research at the University of Kentucky Vis Center. The program seeks to attract motivated students from traditionally underrepresented demographics to the computer science profession, and to give them practical research experience and professional skills. Toward that goal, half of the students come from the University of Puerto Rico, as did Roman.
“He was overwhelmed, like many of the students,” remembered Matt Field, Vis Center software engineer and Roman’s project supervisor. “They were given projects and told to go and get started. It’s a unique kind of problem solving – very independent.” The Vis U program allows students with limited computer science background or experience to have a legitimate research experience. “They come in not sure what’s expected for technical skills, not knowing what a research environment will be like, not sure how to work on a research team,” explained Julie Martinez, Vis U Coordinator. The goal of the program is that these students would leave feeling comfortable and confident in all of these areas.
“They must learn to work in a team environment. And it challenging to be given an ambiguous project and learn how to flesh it out, develop requirements independently and then build something useful,” said Field. Students also get career direction, doing this work for several months and discovering if this really is a direction they want to continue to pursue.
Throughout the summer, students participated in weekly project review meetings to evaluate their progress. The final element was a project presentation to Vis Center researchers, faculty and staff, a great opportunity for students to practice their professional communication and presentation skills.
This undergraduate involvement brings significant benefit for the research of the Vis Center. “The big ideas always come from higher up, from the faculty, but the ones in the trenches are always students,” said Field. Students are able to give focused attention to a specific aspect of a research project and help push forward the research initiatives.
For the Vis U students, the impact on their academic and professional career was profound. Not only did they mature in their independent problem-solving skills, but they also learned to see their work as part of something bigger. Juan de Dios Santos worked on another part of the STITCH project and was struck by the experience working as a team. “I’ve learned to work in a group, with people who share the same interests I have. I’ve learned how to approach a problem in a very different way.”
Santos also noted that “in these two months I’ve learned the meaning of the word ‘research’, I’ve learned how to dig for information, how to study it and finally how to apply it and use it.”
For Roman, the experience made possible a significant career opportunity. “I interviewed last week for a research position at the Arecibo Observatory and I got it! Half of the interview was questions of what I did at the Vis Center.” The Vis Center plans to continue providing this kind of hands-on practical experience for undergraduate students in coming years, as a complement to the classroom and preparation for their future careers.