Research-enriched teaching at Undergraduate level: The SURE Programme1 Name of initiative This programme is called the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), and has been run in the Department of Computer Science at UCT during the November-February summer vacations since 2009. Staff involved The SURE programme is exclusively run by staff in the Computer Science Department with the assistance of postgraduate students. It was founded by A/Prof Hussein Suleman in 2009, and also includes A/Prof James Gain and A/Prof Michelle Kuttel. They collectively run the initial training workshop. They then devise individual research projects and act as supervisors to the undergraduate participants. Postgraduate students assist in the capacity of organisers, mentors and supervisors, interacting with the undergraduate participants on a more regular basis both in terms of the logistics and content of the research projects. Administrative staff in the Department assist with logistics for events and travel and manage the financial aspects of the project. Rationale of the research project The SURE programme was proposed to expose undergraduate students who show potential, especially previously disadvantaged students, to research and innovation in Computer Science. Historically, students in Computer Science were not exposed to any significant research opportunities during their undergraduate degrees, and were only introduced to the concepts and process of research in the fourth (Honours) year. While the undergraduate degree does incorporate elements of research, the focus is on training for a career in the commercial computing industry. Students therefore often leave academia before they have had the opportunity to learn about and participate in research. Those that are interested in academic research often move to disciplines that focus more on this aspect in the undergraduate degree than the Computer Science Department does. This led to a reduced interest in the postgraduate programmes, especially among the black and female demographic groups, which have low representation among the Masterâ€™s and Doctoral students in the Department. The SURE programme is designed to give students who show increased potential the opportunity early in their academic careers to take part in their own research and learn the skills necessary for postgraduate study. The goal is to develop a research culture that inspires creativity and critical thinking. The programme also helps to alleviate misconceptions about the nature of postgraduate study that may discourage students from designated groups from choosing to pursue postgraduate studies. Description of the research project with particular focus on the innovative features of the initiative The SURE programme is limited to a small set of students (7-13) each year. The programme is announced to students via Vula and in classes, and they are asked to fill in a survey as their application. The student participants are selected based on the quality of their applications
1 Contributors: Hussein Suleman, James Gain and Michelle Kuttel
and if their answers reflect a level of maturity and independent critical thinking that is deemed to be at the right level to conduct research. The students are then invited to a workshop at the beginning of the November-February vacation to meet other participants, their postgraduate mentors and the project supervisors. Here they are given an intensive introduction to academic research. The students are given a list of projects that they are required to choose from, each of which falls under the area of expertise of one of the supervisors. Students are required to submit a project proposal before beginning their work on the actual research, which often includes the development and evaluation of an experimental software system. The final report on this research is due at the end of the vacation. Students can contact their postgraduate mentors for assistance whenever it is required, and the mentors monitor their mentees to make sure that the students are coping with their projects. In the latter part of that year, the SURE students are given the opportunity to attend the annual research conference of the South African Institute for Computer Scientists and Information Technologists (SAICSIT). This is an international conference that showcases innovative research, and gives the students exposure to the end products of original research as well as a broader view of research areas than that of UCT as a single institution. The SURE programme aims to develop the research postgraduates of the future. In doing so, it is also developing mentors for future SURE students. The programme therefore does not stop at teaching undergraduates the key research skills, but also helps postgraduate students to learn leadership and teaching skills. This is important for them, as it promotes the skills required for a future in academia after postgraduate study. The programme is therefore innovative in attempting to address the whole pipeline of academic training, by beginning at an earlier stage. There have been many attempts at fostering enthusiasm about Computer Science, including the participation of students in programming competitions and the extra-curricular activities organized by the Department and the students. SURE differs from all of these because it focuses on research instead of undergraduate teaching. This research orientation defines a pathway for continued study where other activities naturally end after three to four years. Finally, SURE is innovative also because it addresses the difficult issue of the research culture of the Department. Computer Science is often viewed locally as a practical/professional discipline, rather than one where constant innovation results from research. SURE attempts to change this underlying perception in the Department by touching the lives of undergraduate students early in their careers. Besides the participants in the programme, many other students notice the programme because it is widely advertised and publicized. Students who apply but are not selected, students who are friends of those on the programme, and various other groups of students take note of the SURE programme as a regular departmental activity â€“ one that is about research. In the ideal case, all students will appreciate the nature of research and have appropriate opportunities for personal development. SURE provides both the stop-gap solution in the short-term and the development of a culture that will realize the long-term vision. Links with UCTâ€™s desired graduate attributes UCTâ€™s strategic plan forecasts the interventions the university aims to make in order to further develop UCT and its graduates over the current five to ten-year period. The SURE programme links with this plan quite extensively by focusing on the following elements:
Developing research UCT’s goal regarding the teaching done at the institution is that it must be “research-led”, meaning that the quality of the research must be excellent and that it must inform everything that the university does. The SURE programme aims to create a more research-oriented culture among the undergraduate students, in order to promote their continuation into research in the future. The aim is to supplement UCT’s active research-led teaching techniques by directly involving students in the research, thereby allowing them to exercise their own creativity while actively learning and developing research skills. This exposure early on in their careers will ensure that the students are better prepared for research at Honours, Master’s and Doctoral levels, and can therefore produce work of a higher quality. Transformation towards non-racialism UCT aims to have a more balanced and representative demographic among the student and staff bodies. In Computer Science, especially at the postgraduate level, the class is not representative of national/regional demographics. Very few Black and female students apply for postgraduate study in the Computer Science Department. The SURE programme aims to address this early in the students’ careers, in order to expose these designated groups to research and equip them with the skills required to pursue it in the future. It is hoped that such students will increasingly consider this career path as a possibility. Enhancing graduate attributes by internationalising the student experience The strategic plan aims to improve UCT’s graduate attributes by equipping the students with knowledge and understanding of local and global contexts and problems. The SURE programme comprises projects that address innovative ideas in the Computer Science field, each addressing a need either in the local or global sphere. The projects have dealt with issues such as 3D graph drawing, new e-learning concepts and graphical representations of chemical compounds. SURE promotes the understanding of its projects in an African and global context, and is designed to improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills. Results/findings/feedback from students A survey was conducted to get feedback from the undergraduate students taking part in the programme and their Master’s supervisors. The following questions were asked: • • • • •
In which year did you take part? [2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012 or 2012-2013] Please comment on your experiences in taking part in the programme What did you think about the goals and execution of the programme? Should we continue to pursue undergraduate research programmes such as this one (not necessarily in the same format)? [yes or no] How would you suggest we modify the SURE programme to improve it?
Eighteen responses were received from previous participants, ranging across all four years that SURE has taken place. The responses were very positive, with all respondents saying that they enjoyed the programme and thought the goals of the programme were good and necessary. All agreed that they had learnt from SURE and that such a programme should be continued in the future. However, most of the respondents felt that the execution lacked the
right amount of continuous engagement and supervision. They felt that as novice researchers they struggled to achieve their goals on their own. A few suggested that this could also be a reason why some projects were not completed. In the suggestions for improvement, most respondents said that the process should be monitored and supervised more closely. Other suggestions were to increase the initial advertising to students and to incorporate a presentation element. These suggestions are already being addressed in a redesign of the programme for 2013 and beyond, with more intensive and closely-supervised engagement with students, probably through an in-residence programme rather than the previous model. Reflections on the initiative The SURE programme is now completing its fourth year, with the fourth set of students planning their trip to SAICSIT during the second semester. In terms of evaluating the programme based on its initial goals, we can begin to analyse whether or not the SURE programme had a direct impact on its students by whether or not they pursued a postgraduate degree, or any career involving research. More importantly, the impact on the research culture of the Department and opportunities for undergraduate students needs to be considered. Both of these can only be evaluated on a long-term basis. On a year-by-year basis, however, we have found the SURE programme to be very successful. We have had a few successful projects, where students have actively contributed to papers and posters submitted to local and international research conferences. The responses from students in the programme over these years have been very positive. Most feel that they benefited from the exposure to research, and some even mentioned that it inspired an interest in pursuing research in the future. More than anything else, inspiration alone justifies such a programme. The clear benefits suggest that the programme should continue in the short term, with continuous improvements based on feedback from participants. However, it is also necessary to expand the programme to more staff and students, and make it independent of external funding. Integration with the teaching mission and the Faculty in general are also being considered: should this be additional work or a standard for-credit course offered within the Faculty? Whatever is pursued, it must be in the interests of the development of an ideal future cohort of researchers in South Africa.