Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lessons learned: working with high school students

In the New York Times Education section there was an article on how high school students are looking for experiences over their summers beyond the usual summer job (For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers). This summer I had three high school students working for me on various projects. They had come through my department chair, who was aware that I had more project ideas then money and suggested them to me.

Over the course of the summer I had them working on a mix of grunt tasks and substantive ones. I think a lot of times high school interns end up doing data entry or manual labor tasks. And I had them doing such things.

  1. Entering data from forms written by teams that were in the field (i.e. on foot when they collected the data)

  2. Entering data into a spreadsheet model from multiple sources (census, address lists, etc.)

  3. Developing process maps from a process description

  4. Running a simulation and performing sensitivity analysis

  5. Debugging and running linear programming models and analysis

Some thoughts

  1. Clearly the high school students (juniors and seniors) I am seeing are taken from the top. I was impressed by their desire to carry out the tasks. I had to gently remind one of them that I wanted to know about difficulties as well as progress, because I actually did want the tasks done. (or there were alternatives if something was impossible. The difference between a school assignment and a research project is that research projects do not come with guarantees that they will succeed.) I have a hard time with graduate students who give up too easily.

  2. I could have pushed harder. While high school students typically do grunt work, I had them running models. Talking to them at the end of the summer, each of them said they may have been able to do more technical work. One of them had started learning R in the middle of the summer (for someone else). I think that if I started teaching them programming Python or R at the beginning of the summer, we would have found reason to use it at some point, and do it better then trying to learn programming when a specific task came up.

  3. They were very eager and inquisitive. Lots of good questions. Which came in useful since I wanted to have better documentation of the models and they would ask about what they did not know (because it was not in the current documentation)

This was a good experience. I don't have much experience working with kids (to me, everyone before college), so this was a good one. From talking with each of them over lunch, it was for them too.
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