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Striking a Match

As the weeks of the school year pile high, the typical university student begins to worship the summer. In the middle of winter, summer break is shared campus folklore, a faint promise of ease after the flood of projects and midterms has receded. But for many Honors College (HC) students, summer represents an entirely different opportunity, one for more engagement rather than less; for some, summer allows for the pursuit of research and other experiences outside of the classroom that can clarify ambitions and shape future paths.

Junior, Computer Science

For HC students Amy Wyman, Duy Nguyen, Cameron Bowie, and Jasper LaFortune, the summer of 2013 was just such an opportunity. Working with Dr. Bill Smart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, the students began programming a PR2 (“personal robot”), nicknamed Harris, to function as a movable events photographer. The robot’s true purpose, however, is not the photography, says Smart; the actual goal is to use the photography project “as a vehicle to study the social psychology of human-robot interaction.”

It was that interactive aspect of the project that first appealed to Wyman, a second-year computer science major, when she heard Smart present at one of the HC’s Faculty-Student Matching Receptions. These events – described as “research speed dating” by HC Dean Toni Doolen – facilitate connections between HC undergraduates and university faculty members and provide opportunities for students to get involved in faculty research.

The four students joined Smart’s team after a reception in 2013 and worked as volunteers through spring term. The project received a boost when Smart received an HC DeLoach Work Scholarship, which provides faculty members with funds to pay HC students who are assisting with their research. This award supported the students through summer and fall terms, allowing them to stay on campus instead of pursuing other employment.

With the exception of Nguyen, who was in his second year when he joined Smart’s team, the students started working in the lab at the end of their first years. This meant that, for many of them, this was their first experience conducting hands-on research. According to Smart, the early involvement was beneficial for all of the students: “When the students came in,” he says, “they had done one or two years of computer science, so they had a basic grounding in CS but not a lot of in-depth knowledge of the more advanced stuff…. The thing that I look for more than anything else in students is the willingness to jump in and to learn new material on the fly. All of the students were able to do this, and it means that they were able to do a lot more by the end of the summer than they were at the start.”

Each student was given a separate programming task for the robot. Nguyen, who has continued working in the lab into 2014, is programming the robot to react naturally to human interaction. When this step is completed, the robot will be able to perform responsive actions such as reciprocating a high-five.

For all of the participants, this was a unique opportunity to make tangible contributions to research at the very outset of their college careers, a foundation that will serve them well in whatever they do next. Generating these kinds of experiences is exactly the point of the matching reception and DeLoach Scholarship programs, says Dean Doolen: “The advantage of being in the Honors College setting is that it provides portals for students to access the incredible richness of opportunities in a world-class research university, often very early in their time at OSU.”

The robot and the research weren’t the only benefits of the job, though. “I love talking with the people in my lab,” says LaFortune. “They’re all nerds in some way or another.”

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