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Tag: learning

They Got Game

You’ve probably seen the highlight film.  If you happened to see the play live, you cheered (if they were on your team), or groaned—even then, you might have to admit it was a memorable play.  The game winning grand slam.  (Yes, I’ve got Red Sox gear, and Phillies gear, at home.)  The clutch goal in the 85th or 90th minute.  (Extra style points for headers or bicycle kicks.)  Or maybe the 90+ yard touchdown run.  (Just to show that I root for Purdue, as well as for Wisconsin.)


I’ve got to witness several of these plays this past Fall, either in the stadium or on live TV.   Even the thought of the play brings a smile to my face. These are peak experiences for athletes, and sometimes even for their fans.  Big plays on big stages, they say.  “Big-time Players make big-time plays.”  But, how do you compare those peak experiences to those of others in other domains?  Do academics have the equivalent of a highlight reel?  Especially those who are in academia, there is a sense of life in the research university as a different tier of performance and competition.  Getting promoted in a US News top-10 ranked program is seen as a major highlight.  Being selected as a Principal Investigator (PI) for a new grant from a major government agency can be a hallmark of one’s career.  Academics even use the metaphors of sports to describe such events.  Home run.  Slam dunk.  Major League.


For a few days this month, that’s how I felt regarding my own research activity right now.  After weeks, or months, or in some cases years of effort, some ideas have been coming to fruition.  At Space Grant, we submitted a proposal to the NSF to provide research experiences for teachers to use the Purdue’s HUB technology infrastructure to develop software models to teach STEM concepts to K-12 students in Evansville, Ft. Wayne, and Indianapolis—and highlight some of these software models in the local science museums there.  I was asked to lead a FAA project to help with improving the quality and safety of weather information provided to pilots during severe weather conditions.   And best of all… A NASA research project that I have dreamed about for months, to help with information flow and task coordination for human-robotic collaboration to do planetary science for lunar and martian moon surfaces—how cool is that?  And my team was selected for such a project, within the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute!  Time to practice my fist pumping, shoulder brushing, touchdown dance?


Not so fast.  It is, of course, November.  This year, “Surviving November” (one of the GROUPER “song titles”) for me has included doctoral prelim exams, grading statistics exams, and evaluating team project summaries in both the statistics course and the capstone design course.  The task lists, and the email inbox, both grow—sometimes faster than I can recognize that I have more tasks to do over the next day, or week.  This is when it’s tough.  Why did I sign up for this?  Why do I put myself under this pressure?  And, in a question that I have asked several of my colleagues… Why am I still trying to get tenure?


The answer to that question is both viciously insidious, and beautifully clear.  I’ve been working like this for the past 30 years.  I have lots of ideas, and am rarely satisfied with the standard way of doing things (or having people tell me there’s only one proper or correct way to do it).  In 1983, it was becoming convinced that it was easier to get two undergraduate degrees rather than one.  In 1993, I had to learn that I couldn’t put every cool idea into a single paper that could get me tenure immediately.  But I did like the idea of studying the effects of time delay on tolerance for group interactions using this new technology called the web browser, or examining how to evaluate different options for that new digital voice mail technology being considered for state government.  In 2003, it was believing that I could do more with Indiana Space Grant, and maybe we should try to write a proposal for an upgrade, less than 12 months after doing a complete overhaul of the program and award structure.  So really, what’s been happening is that I have been rewarded and reinforced for being this way.  Intermittent reinforcement works the best, as the operant conditioning psychologists have long known.  If you want to make sure a behavior sticks around for a very long time, reinforce it.  But only do so a fraction of the time—maybe 15% or so.  On a semi-random basis.  (That sounds like grant proposal writing.)  In baseball or in funded research, what do you call a person who has an overall success rate of 40%?  A member of the Hall of Fame.


It’s a tough world, and it’s a devastating level of competition that can emotionally and physically hurt.  There’s no need to make it harder than it is, or to be erratic and cruel just to show the students how hard it can be.  Can it be sufficient to just say, “We’re not going to tolerate less than excellence today”?  That attitude doesn’t start with the award, and it doesn’t end with the award either.  Every day is a struggle, but not necessarily against a competitor.  Maybe it’s against one’s own doubt or insecurity.  Perhaps it is just the need to push back the veil and curtain of ignorance.  And sometimes, it’s just the desire to do just a little bit better than last time, or see if one can do just as well as last time.


I don’t want to be on the sidelines.  I want to participate.  Even if I’m tired tonight, I want to be able to function tomorrow.  And tomorrow, the game starts anew.

Updating Documentation

Now that there are a few new members of the lab, it’s time to pay attention once more to making explicit some of our expectations and shared experiences.  It’s interesting to watch, and to test, how stories or catch phrases easily become part of a local culture… only to be met by blank stares when a new person experiences it.

“What’s the best dissertation?”  “The one *you* can do in a reasonable amount of time.”

“Is that a title of a song on the album?”

” Delta Pain” (which is a title of a song on the album)

All of these represent elements of tacit knowledge, in that they are shared and understood by people who were in the lab when the event occurred, or maybe in an individual meeting with me, and have learned to experience and internalize the informal lessons of the lab in a particular way.  That’s great for an individual mentoring interaction, but not really good for organizing the productivity of getting a population of students to finish high quality thesis and dissertation documents.  Thus, we have to do some of these things with more explicit intent, and a more focused and determined documentation of elements of the lab’s culture.

Since the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester, we’ve been working on this in the creation and updating of four distinct documents:  A Master’s Thesis outline; a Dissertation prelim outline (oh, even that’s tacit, or at least implicit: the proposal document written in order to describe one’s dissertation so that one can be advanced to candidacy); a Doctoral Dissertation outline… and most recently, a semester-by-semester timeline for progress towards degree completion.  These seem to be very helpful for students, and help to summarize and integrate and transmit my experience in a fairly efficient way.  And why not?  I’ve supervised over 30 MS theses and 12 PhD dissertations, and sat on committees for another 25 or more graduate documents.  Most students, on the other hand, only do this once.  (I did have one of my students complete a second MS with me after finishing a first one elsewhere; no GROUPERs have ever tried to do multiple PhD dissertations.)  Rather than make everything trial and error, or suggest that there is no pattern that leads to increased probability of success, some people (among those are many engineers) would like to have a sense of the path, the rule, the “game plan” of how this graduate experience is supposed to play out.

Does this mean that there is a fixed and rigid procedure that everyone must follow?  Of course not, for several reasons.  One is that GROUPERs are different people, with different skills.  They don’t want to work in the same stream, or using the same data collection or analysis tools, or ask the same sorts of questions.  Fortunately, I’ve worked in a bunch of areas, so my tolerance for procedure variability is fairly high–I can advise a variety of dissertations, because I have done a variety of projects in different areas and methodologies.  (Some people may think of this concept as akin to Ashby’s discussion of “Requisite Variety”; no strict quantification here is implied.)  So, the level of consistency is not at the detailed level of “you must design a three-level, two-dimensional Analysis of Variance studying the influence of…” Everyone is expected to be able to answer, “Why would anyone want to read this thesis / dissertation?”  or “Why do we care about the question, or the work you did to answer it?”

It may also be relevant that one of the recent dissertations now making its way to conclusion is specifically addressing the question of procedure reliability and complexity.  A very often-repeated task, with few new or challenging elements, can have a standard procedure that is rarely, if ever, inappropriate for completing the task as designed.  If you’re developing a brand new task that has never been tried before, it’s highly unlikely that you can write a perfect procedure on exactly how to do it.  Most procedures are somewhere in between, even if we assume the procedure is always right.  At what level should we expect a new procedure to capture all of the experience that we gain in the development of a new system?

As time goes on, all of these documents will need to be updated–not necessarily because we were wrong, but because our knowledge evolves.  (OK, I was explicitly wrong on this item. I forgot to include a version of the well-known advice: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you told them.”  In other words, the last section of the introduction chapter should include an outline of the organization of the remainder of the thesis / dissertation.)  Even the working of the updating process is a helpful way of sharing the experiences and telling the stories of the lab.  And when we’re done, current and future generations of GROUPERs can know that I won’t get upset if they haven’t taken 15 credits or completed their plan of study or research proposal by the end of their first semester in the program.  Really.


I know, you’re wanting the links to these documents.  They’re still under construction.  Check back when they’re done and posted.

Asking the Right Questions

At this point in the semester, it’s easy to look at the task load (student project presentations held at the customers’ locations; document deposits and graduation; assignment and course grading) and ask, “Why did I do this to myself?”  Of course, that’s not really the right question to ask.  Every semester has some elements like this, and no matter how one schedules one’s own work, there are always potential surprises and overloads—because it’s a busy time for everyone else.  So, let me not ask that question.


One of the things I did to myself was in the teaching realm.  For the senior design projects, teams are expected to make final presentations of their work.  In contrast to other faculty who schedule the presentations on campus as an academic activity, I encouraged the teams to schedule the presentations with the customer, at the customer’s site.  With 19 teams, this means a lot of presentations outside of greater Lafayette, and several cases of multiple teams presenting at the same time in different cities.  (If you know how to be in Hammond, Kokomo, and Lebanon at the same time, or get from one to the other in 15 minutes or less, please let me know.)  Today was the first day of presentations, and a pleasant experience occurred.  After two different team presentations (in different towns, for customers in different industries), spirited discussions ensued—not just between the team and the customer, but between different members of the customer group who represented different divisions, units, or work groups.   You mean we haven’t fixed that problem yet?  Can we get more communication between those groups?  When can we implement that new device technology?  Does changing or rerouting that form work to meet your information needs?  Of course, it’s one thing for me to say that I have a research interest and published papers on information alignment in production systems and an information clutch to improve knowledge sharing.  It’s quite different to have the project customers (doctors, nurses, purchasing managers, financial officers) to tie these concepts directly to their ongoing operations and what they should have done, or can do, about their organization.  Reading my paper isn’t necessarily what they should be doing.  Interacting with the students was what they should be doing.  The organizations learn.  The students learn.  If I pay attention and listen well, I learn what will be the next research questions to ask and projects to study—not from literature reviews, but from captured practice and expressed pain and demonstrated knowledge gaps. 


Members of the GROUPER Lab also talked about asking the right questions yesterday, but in a much less structured setting—our end-of-semester social event and potluck.  (These events are now known as G4, or “GROUPER group get-together gathering”.  No, I did not make that up.)  We were treated to a number of surprises and unexpected treats, about the lives of GROUPERs outside of, or prior to, their life in the lab.  Jake casually described the renovations to his house—not renovations they “had done,” but he and his wife had done them themselves.  Yeah, we built the bunk beds.  We just got this new counter top.  Having the heated floor on in the morning is really pleasant in the winter.  Yeah, she painted those portraits.  Oh, yeah, I was in the marching band.  (This is at a Big Ten university, where, of course, marching band is pretty serious stuff.)   


That was only part of the evening’s lesson.  Jeremi had been a cheerleader, and demonstrated a few of her favorites.  Omar talked about daily life, social media, and 10 year old checkpoint monitors in Alexandria, Egypt during Arab Spring, and the various people he knows who are helping to shape the transitions there.  In comparison to the various large families experienced by all of the other members of the lab, Liang told stories about “one-child” childhood, in Xi’an – oh yeah, where the terra cotta soldiers are.  Of course, I didn’t know about most of this.  Why not?  “You didn’t ask.”  Well, no, I guess I didn’t.  Lab meetings are for project schedules for upcoming research projects, and task timelines for conference and journal papers, and professional development advising regarding jobs and networking and identifying research topics.  As the students said last night, the G4s are good for a different type of learning, and a different kind of exploration.  It seems clear that the lab does something different during G4, and something that, although it doesn’t directly advance the professional activity or research impact factor of GROUPER, helps improve the coherence and mutual respect and awareness of what the members of the lab can do.  Laughter and food helps, too. 


In how many countries could we have G4 parties, now and the next 10 years?  (I guess that makes them G5: Global GROUPER Group Get-together Gatherings.)  Where will GROUPERs be, and what will they be able to influence and affect, over that time?  Those sound like great questions to consider… experientially, and not just academically.