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From Neural Networks To Football: Enriching Student Life

E D U   B O T S


Georgia Institute Of Technology

Atlanta, GA

From Neural Networks To Football: Enriching Student Life, by Andrew Price

Andrew Price, Robotics PhD Program, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA

EduBots is pleased to welcome Andrew Price.

Andrew is in his fourth year of the Robotics PhD program at Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s also the Vice President of Academics for RoboGrads, the school’s graduate student organization.

This Friday evening, between 10 and 25 Georgia Tech robotics graduate students will trickle out from their labs and offices and make their way through midtown Atlanta to this week’s designated rendezvous, usually a pub, restaurant, or brewery. There they will unwind over appetizers and drinks, with the conversations drifting from neural networks to football, and from local concerts to experimental design. On its own, this may not seem like a remarkable state of affairs, but in context it provides a valuable window into an often overlooked aspect of academic life: a commitment to the development and maintenance of a sense of community within the student body of an academic program.

EduBots-SAW.inddLater iterations of this column will explore the research and engineering accomplishments of various individuals and labs at GT, but we wanted to begin the series by highlighting the benefits of fostering friendship, camaraderie, and collaboration between students.

To begin, it may be helpful to examine potential obstacles to forming a robust social network among peers. Actively seeking to socialize with other students requires additional energy, something that is often in short supply at the end of a long or frustrating week of research. Furthermore, social commitments require time that often feels better spent trying to make the next paper deadline. These are both reasonable and valid points, and this article is not an endorsement of neglecting academic responsibilities in favor of hanging out with friends. However, with proper time management, most students will be able to make time for socializing, and the experience can be refreshing at the end of a long week.

EduBots-SAW.inddA first reason to cultivate friendships with your peers is that grad school is hard. Part of this is by necessity, part by design, and part by circumstance. Data from the PhD Completion Project shows that the attrition rate for STEM doctoral students is in the 30-35% range overall, and can reach over 50% for students in fields such as computer science or mathematics. On top of this, the often competitive nature of many disciplines can lead students to trumpet their successes while minimizing their missteps, producing an effect similar to comparing someone else’s vacation photos to your day-to-day life. In these circumstances, having people with whom you can be genuine about your successes and difficulties can provide a renewing source of strength. After all, as the saying goes, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Second, your peers, especially the senior students, can be great sources for practical information, both for research and for the quirks of your particular institution. For example, it becomes quite easy to understand reciprocal wrenches when a third-year can just hold up your robot’s arm and demonstrate the idea by moving the robot through its paces. Other students can recommend particularly helpful courses, books, or other resources. This is not limited to purely academic pursuits, either; many graduate students have interesting hobbies that they are happy to share. For example, this author has learned from other grad students the optimal cycling cadence range and how to play bocce.

Third, fellow students can be a valuable resource when it comes to formulating new ideas for research. Students in your lab are, of course, interested in similar problems to the ones you are working on, and practices including lab meetings and reading groups should serve to bring together like minds. In addition to this, students from different disciplines or schools of thought can provide valuable perspectives. Put together an engineer and a mathematician, or students from controls and HRI, and great ideas are likely to arise, or at least, hearty debates. After all, these types of interactions are the great draw of studying and working as a member of an institution, rather than in a vacuum.

With these challenges and benefits in mind, the question becomes how to intentionally foster this sort of atmosphere. Here at Georgia Tech, we are fortunate to have great Institute support for the robotics student organization, which is responsible for organizing periodic outings, student seminars, and submission deadline pizza parties (although “party” may be too strong a word here), as well as coordinating outreach events, qualifying exam study groups, and other student-focused programs. However, official organizations like this are not sufficient to fully realize all of the goals outlined above.

Other interest groups have grown up organically, like the Friday Night Happy Hour tradition, a salsa dance mailing list, an outdoor activities group, and an intramural sports team. Each of these requires grassroots leadership and delegation from the organizers, plus enthusiasm and energy from the participants. Even with these systems in place, we still face significant challenges, particularly with regards to incorporating first-year students and interdisciplinary students in the more widely dispersed labs. With deliberate attention to these issues, we hope to help nurture a richer, more productive community of student researchers.