September 2020 OES Beacon

Fostering Discovery in a Remote World

Jeff Dusek, Olin College of Engineering

Right now, as I am preparing for a primarily remote fall semester, I am filled with optimism. It is an optimism born of watching a group of undergraduate researchers learn, grow, and find joy in ocean engineering, in spite of the challenges presented by entirely remote summer research. Earlier this spring, I wrote an article for the Beacon titled “Finding Connectedness through the OES” in which I reflected on the rapid shift to online education by Olin College during the spring 2020 semester, and the challenges of maintaining a sense of connectedness during this time of global disruption. While that article was largely focused on the role that OES can play in helping students develop and maintain a connection with the broader marine engineering community, this summer provided an opportunity to face these challenges within my own lab group.

Marine robotics research at home requires being creative- like building a test bed for visual fish recognition in your living room using bed sheets and stuffed fish models!
(Photo from Sander Miller, Olin ’22)

Like many campuses around the country and the world, Olin College was still largely closed this summer, with dorms shuttered and no students living on campus. Having recently initiated a new research project in the space of marine robotics and offshore aquaculture, I found I had a choice to make- delay my research agenda until we return to “normal,” or forge ahead into the unknown world of completely remote undergraduate research. Working with my students, we devised a plan to move the project forward, and decided to explore the possibilities of distributed, remote research.

When talking about summer research projects with my students, we focused on two objectives. First, was making sure we selected sub-projects for each student that moved our overall research agenda forward, even if integration tasks had to be delayed to an in-person future. To do this, we took a systems engineering approach of identifying “showstoppers”—key technical questions that could severely hinder our project in the future. Demonstrating that solutions exist to these “showstopper” problems, even if they are not final solutions, created relatively self-contained sub-projects that held strong value to our overall project objectives.

Second, and equally important, was having each student identify personal learning objectives for the summer, and articulate how their project addressed these objectives. It was not sufficient for an individual sub-project to solely move the overall research forward. Instead, they needed to connect to the student’s development, and that connection needed to be articulated and explained. The developmental component is a critical part of the undergraduate summer research experience, and regularly reflecting on progress towards developmental goals was especially important in a virtual setting.

The actual logistics of conducting marine robotics work with a research team spread across five states was challenging, but the students rose to the challenge with creativity, flexibility, and a genuine enthusiasm for their work. I met with each student and each project team weekly for conversations focused on personal development and technical mentorship. I shipped components directly to my students, and they developed innovative ways to carry out their research while following local health and safety guidelines. Some examples of this creativity included Sander Miller (Olin ’22) building an undersea environment in his living room using toy fish and bed sheets to explore visual fish recognition using stereo cameras. To characterize transmission errors during short-range underwater image transmission using RF modules, Samuel Cabrera Valencia (Olin ’23) setup a mini testing tank in a plastic storage container on his back patio, carrying sea water two liters at a time from the beach near his home. As an advisor, seeing the enthusiasm and dedication of my students was the best possible antidote to the challenges and unease of the disrupted summer and planning for an uncertain fall.

No testing tank, no problem! A plastic storage bin and some seawater creates a great setup to start benchmarking underwater wireless transmission.
(Photo from Sam Cabera Valencia, Olin ’23)

In addition to research progress and individual student development, a key personal goal for the summer was to continue fostering a culture of inquiry, connectedness, and activism within my lab group. To this end, we dedicated time each Friday to a full-lab meeting devoted to conversations about lab culture, science culture, and our role as scientists, engineers, and young researchers. We watched videos from Professors Uri Alon and Radhika Nagpal interrogating academic and science culture, and discussed #ShutDownAcademia and the role our lab should play within Olin College and beyond.  Because my lab had projects in both marine robotics and assistive/adaptive technology this summer, these conversations were rich, thoughtful, and a highlight of my week. By creating opportunities for genuine conversation with my students, we grew closer as a group, and I’m confident our research benefitted.

So, after a full summer of fully remote undergraduate research, what did I learn?

  1. We focused on personal growth and well being, and the research results that followed exceeded my expectations.
  2. We identified sub-projects that contributed to our overall project objectives, but were self-contained to allow for individual exploration and development.
  3. We were able to grow the connectedness of our lab by intentionally devoting time to conversations outside of the traditional scope of research activities.
  4. The creativity, tenacity, and enthusiasm of young researchers, even in the face of incredible uncertainty, gives me hope that we can tackle the challenges facing our world.

As we move towards a fall semester that will again see a large percentage of students engaging in course work and research remotely, the lessons learned from this summer give me hope that we can continue to create an environment for our students that emphasizes discovery and personal growth. I cannot wait for a time when I can be back in the classroom and lab enjoying the very best part of my job—helping students discover a love of scientific inquiry and the ocean. But until that time, I will continue taking advantage of the opportunities presented by remote interactions (like Global OCEANS 2020!) and draw inspiration from my students.