Another post based on stuff I came up with for my lab on the spur of the moment. I know I'm probably reinventing many wheels here, but one reason I'm posting this is so that when I stumble back across wheels others have made later on, I can bring mine out to play as well.
Last week, I had the pleasure of embarking on a spontaneous research discussion with several undergraduate students in our lab (and oh my gosh, everyone, it's really fun to sign about research because of how much you can play with space*). For context: our lab has historically built things, and publishing papers on the things we build is a fairly new concept. The students are working (some for the first time) on poster abstracts for an upcoming conference, and one had asked for feedback on their draft. I realized it was a teaching moment, rounded up everyone who wasn't busy, and proceeded to do a group-run workshopping of the first student's abstract (which, by the way, is a clever museum access system that I'm pretty eager to see written up).
In this particular moment, I realized that the biggest gains were to be had in helping the student realize what they had already said. There were some great ideas in the first draft -- in fact, most of what they needed was already there. The trouble was that it was all jumbled up; context trailed into conclusion with a detour through a sentence full of technology-related acronyms. So I made a quick reference to Common Things Your Abstract Might Be Trying To Do, a.k.a. The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat (below) and we went sentence by sentence through the current draft, sorting each bit into its respective house(s) -- I mean, uh... sections.
I apologize for the Harry Potter metaphor, but it could have been worse. (Contextpuff! Problemdor!) Examples are paraphrases from our discussion today -- I've removed details so as to not ruin surprises for their eventual publication.
The CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1
1. Context. What is the situation you are designing within? Start with things your audience will recognize. (Example from today: Museums often include audio-recorded or live spoken-language tours to teach visitors about the history and context of the exhibits they are viewing.)
2. Problem. What is the challenge you are addressing? Be conscious of how you frame the problem, especially if you are working with access-related technologies. (Example: Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) visitors to museums don't have the same level of access to spoken/audio-recorded tour information. In our framing, it is important that the problem is not that we are DHH, it is that museums have not considered visual access and have therefore left out DHH audiences.)
3. Prior work. What have you and others done in the past to address the problem? What work are you building upon?
4. New work. What is the new contribution you are describing in this specific publication? (Example: our lab has built device A to address problem B; in this paper we describe the new features we just added, namely C and D.)
5. Technical details (optional). if you are utilizing specific technologies that you would like to note, they go after #4 (which describes what the solution does). In the context of a lab full of excited engineering/CS undergrads, I added a note that oftentimes, these details are not important for the abstract compared to what we might usually be inclined to put down.
6. Implications / “so what” / (ASL:for-for)? Why is your work important - what could it change? What would happen if the problem you described in #2 was solved? Be as specific as possible (“allow native ASL users to study STEM topics using their native language” is better than “helps DHH students learn”).
End of the CAT Lab Abstract Sorting Hat, Version 0.1
It's wonderful to watch students just... be around the lab, working on things. As someone who didn't get to grow up in this (American Deaf) culture or with this language (ASL), I'm learning a lot from them in just... how to... be. People. Who sign. About engineering. I wonder if this is how new Olin faculty feel, landing as teachers inside a culture they were never students within.
*regarding playing with space to discuss research: even if we weren't getting into the actual content of our papers, the papers themselves lent themselves to spatial setup. The relative lengths and positions of paragraphs and sections (with accompanying facial expressions denoting emotions about various parts), cutting and pasting and twiddling phrasings and words - I've thought about editing spatially even before I learned to sign, but watching students (who are more fluent signers than I am) basically collaboratively editing a document in their shared imagination in mid-air -- man, that was pretty cool.