Student Sets Up Tech Paper Reading Program

Gaining familiarity with technical papers early on

6 January 2012

Reading and discussing technical papers is an important part of an engineer’s career. It’s a must if you’re to keep abreast of the latest work in your field. But dealing with technical papers isn’t a regular part of an engineering student’s curriculum. IEEE Student Member Cathy Wu, a senior studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, has tried to bridge that gap.


To get used to reading up on technical topics, as well as meeting others with similar interests, Wu this past fall organized the Undergraduate Reading Groups in Engineering (URGE) program at MIT. 


The meetings, organized around technical interests, are not your typical classroom get-togethers, Wu says. They are more like intellectual dinner parties held in a relaxed setting meant to generate interesting conversation.


“The long-term vision is to create a cohesive technical undergraduate community at MIT,” she says. “I wanted students to learn from each other for fun and not just learn through classes.”


WHAT’S GOING ON

She came up with the idea last year after taking a class for which she read and analyzed a lot of technical research papers. “A few friends and I realized that reading technical papers is a great way to learn what is actually going on in a field, and sometimes it’s the only way to learn the state of the art,” she says. “But technical papers are often dense, and we thought it would be nice to discuss the material in these papers with our peers.”


URGE is led by 12 student “staff members”—mostly electrical engineering or computer science undergrads. Wu served as director for the fall semester. The program receives support and money to pay for the dinners from the IEEE/Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) club and MIT’s math department club.


DINNER AND DISCUSSION

Prior to launching the program, Wu and her staff set up a website for it. Then they used the site to recruit students willing to lead the reading groups on a technical topic of their choice. Each leader is then responsible for choosing technical papers from academic literature databases and journals, as well as from course readings and faculty suggestions. They also moderate the group’s discussions during dinner.


Those interested in being a group leader submit proposals to the website, outlining suggestions for technical topics, prerequisites for their group members (such as which classes students must have taken), and other details.


Their proposals are then posted on the URGE site, and registration is opened to students to join the groups. URGE staff members decide how many of the groups should be formed based on available funding and participant interest.


The staff formed eight reading groups in the fall—with about 10 students each. Six covered electrical engineering and computer science, one focused on math, and the other one on physics. Topics included machine learning, stochastic biology, and electric motors.


To kick off the program, URGE staff held an orientation session and discussed expectations. Then the groups met to decide on each member’s responsibilities.


“What’s notable is that we established a streamlined system that distributes the work for running a reading group among its members so the leader isn’t doing everything,” Wu says. “For example, someone is in charge of ordering food, another schedules meetings, and others take notes.”


Each group met five times during the semester—about once every two weeks. Several days prior to each meeting, the group leader assigned a technical paper to be read by each member.


The program wrapped up with a series of talks open to the MIT community, given by each group, summarizing what was learned during the semester. The goal of the talks was to pique audience interest—in the topic and in future reading groups. The speakers received USB drives or other prizes sponsored by IEEE during a ceremony organized by the URGE staff.


Wu says she hopes the program catches on at other schools. “Students will learn more if they’re better connected to others sharing similar interests,” she says. “And this could lead them to other group projects and further collaboration.”


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