Designing Undergraduate Research Projects: A Case Study
Kathy Cooksey



The efficacy of a student researcher is greatly enhanced if the project is thoughtfully planned. "Backward design" refers to being goal-oriented when planning and executing curricula, which includes student research projects. To seed ideas for the IfA Mentoring Workshop (contact Geoff Mathews), I will describe the project design for a 2014 Akamai intern. My primary goal for the intern was her articulating an investigable question -- a fundamental research skill. To support my goal and the intern's ability to achieve it, I developed a "starter" tutorial to introduce her to the data and software on hand and sow the seeds of possible avenues of investigation. With facilitation, the student identified a suitable question, which became the focus of her internship project. Thus, she gained ownership of the project and worked efficiently towards results to present at the Akamai Symposium. I have used the "starter" tutorial with other students on related projects, and, generally, tutorials on fundamental elements of a mentor's research (e.g., science background, UNIX) are sound investments because they expedite the orientation of new student researchers. In addition to the details of the Akamai case study, I will discuss different types and tiers of goals and how to design backwards from them. Lastly, I will outline "tools" for initiating and successfully maintaining research relationship with students. To provide the science context, my research focuses on the cosmic chemical-enrichment cycle over cosmic time (0 < z < 6.5). I use quasar absorption-line spectroscopy to study inter- and circum-galactic gas over in order to characterize galactic feedback -- and feeding -- processes.