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Undergraduates Present Research Results at ASEE 2020

7/17/2020 1:47:17 PM Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

Each academic year, dozens of Illinois CS undergraduate students conduct research with faculty and doctoral candidate advisors, and a few even publish their results as lead authors. Recently, CS rising seniors Natalia Ozymko and Akhil Mohan presented separate research papers at the 2020 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference held virtually in late June.

“It’s rare for an undergraduate to be a first author on a research paper, but our students are phenomenal,” said Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, CS teaching associate professor. “They’re building tools and conducting research that will enhance the education of future undergraduates.”

A course assistant (CA) for CS 225 - Data Structures last year, Ozymko was part of a team working with Fagen-Ulmschneider that analyzed more than 12,000 in-person office hour interactions from the class to see what impact they had on students’ grades. The team examined log files from the open-source app Queue, which instructors use to organize and streamlines office hour appointments for large enrollment courses.

“We found that student office hour usage follows the Pareto principle, meaning about 80 percent of all office hour interactions involved about 20 percent of the students,” said Ozymko, who conducted the study outside of her CA duties and who co-presented the results with fellow author and mathematics senior Matthew McCarthy. “Additionally, students who go to office hours closer to an assignment’s due date end up getting a lower grade than students who seek help earlier.”

According to Fagen-Ulmschneider, their analysis found that students who regularly attended office hours five days before an assignment was due had a final course grade several points higher than students who primarily attended office hours the day the assignment was due.

“This is in line with what we anecdotally expected, but it’s nice to see this come out in the data,” he said. 

Prior to their June 2020 ASEE conference presentation, CS senior Natalia Ozymko (right) and mathematics student Matthew McCarthy presented the results of their research at an NCSA-hosted poster session on campus.
Prior to their June 2020 ASEE conference presentation, CS senior Natalia Ozymko (right) and mathematics student Matthew McCarthy presented the results of their research at an NCSA-hosted poster session on campus.

Interestingly, Queue was developed in 2017 primarily by CS undergraduates Nathan Walters and Genevieve Helsel and further developed by Jackie Osborn, Rittika Adhikari, and James Wang.  More than a dozen undergraduates have contributed to the development of Queue since then.

Today, Queue is used by more than 30 courses, advising offices, and organizations across campus.

In the fall, Ozymko will begin work on a senior thesis research project with Fagen-Ulmschneider. When she graduates in May 2021, she’ll earn an Undergraduate Research Certificate from the campus Office of Undergraduate Research. Her ultimate goal is to work as a software engineer.

“I’d recommend other students conduct research,” said Ozymko. “It has provided me with connections, knowledge and experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, such as how to talk at a conference, how to write papers, and how to analyze data.”

The full title of Ozymko’s ASEE presentation is “Work in progress: Analysis of the impact of office hours on graded course assessments.” Her faculty co-authors are bioengineering teaching assistant professor Karin Jensen, statistics senior instructor Karle Flanagan, and Fagen-Ulmschneider.


For the past year, Akhil Mohan worked with CS teaching assistant professor Mariana Silva on enhancing a web application that helps instructors efficiently and quickly assign students to teams for their capstone senior design projects, which are often sponsored by industry partners.

Silva created Junto several years ago based on a genetic algorithm that optimizes student satisfaction and allows them to be paired with one team member of their choice. Mohan primarily worked on improving the back-end server.

According to Silva, instructors teaching the design course in the mechanical science and engineering department have successfully used Junto in the last five years to place more than 1,000 senior design students in small project teams. In the process, students have reported overall satisfaction with their teams and instructors have reduced their time spent on team formation from one to two days to a couple of hours.

“Akhil has done an amazing job improving the original code, allowing for an easier interface for instructors and students,” said Silva.

The ASEE conference was Mohan’s first research presentation, and he was impressed with the audience’s interest in Junto.

“I was pleasantly surprised to know that the audience was interested in understanding and potentially adopting our approach to their capstone course logistics,” said Mohan. “We had questions about Junto’s distinguishing features and how one might go about setting up Junto and modifying the open source project for their needs.”

In the fall, Mohan will continue his work on Junto, helping Silva’s team add more features to the app. He also plans to work on several personal artificial intelligence-related projects related to game development. Ultimately, he plans to pursue a CS doctorate in numerical methods.

The full title of Mohan’s ASEE presentation is “Introducing Junto: A web tool to build project teams based on a bidding strategy.” His co-authors are Statistics & CS junior Priyanka Dey, CS junior Sizhi Tan, mechanical science and engineering lecturer Blake Johnson, Silva, and Fagen-Ulmschneider.

How to Get Involved in Research

While undergraduates can read journal papers of interest and inquire with a faculty member about research opportunities, they should review these helpful hints first. For those students who may not be familiar with professors’ work, there other ways to get involved with research.

CS senior Rittika Adhikari, who conducted research with CS assistant professor Sanmi Koyejo, participated in a poster session at the Women in Machine Learning conference in the fall of 2018.
CS senior Rittika Adhikari, who conducted research with CS assistant professor Sanmi Koyejo, participated in a poster session at the Women in Machine Learning conference in the fall of 2018.

CS senior Rittika Adhikari, who contributed to the Queue app project, started her research journey through the Promoting Undergraduate Research in Engineering (PURE) program, which is run by Grainger Engineering students for freshmen and sophomores. Undergraduates are paired with graduate student mentors on a mutually agreeable project. Students can earn one hour of course credit for their project.

“Freshmen may find it intimidating to talk to a professor, so PURE is a good way to get involved,” Adhikari said. “It’s not as high pressure as joining a research group, but it really helps you get started.”

At the end of the semester-long research project, student participants create and present a poster on their project.

According to Adhikari, CS assistant professor Sanmi Koyejo was among the faculty who judged her PURE poster presentation three years ago. He subsequently invited her to work on a new research project with his group—she has helped evaluate LIME, a locally interpretable model-agnostic explainer. In the fall of 2018, she presented a poster at the Women in Machine Learning conference.

“The most exciting part about research is knowing that you’ve made a genuine contribution to the general community and your work impacts people,” Adhikari said. “It’s cool to see how researchers build on each other’s contributions.”

Other research opportunities include: