Familiar ground: How a high school internship prepared Kathrine Udell to jump right into research as a freshman

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Kathrine Udell preps her computer-based experiment last year at Kennesaw Mountain High School. Udell worked with School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student Atiyya Shaw on a research project assessing how young drivers (her peers in high school) perceive the complexity of roadway environments. The work was an extension of Shaw's research, and it led Udell to work as an undergraduate researcher after she started classes this fall at Georgia Tech. (Photo: Atiyya Shaw)
 

By Laura Mast

When Kathrine Udell stepped on campus at Georgia Tech a few months ago, it was already familiar ground.

Udell spent much of her senior year at Kennesaw Mountain High School working on a research project with School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student Atiyya Shaw. In fact, she’d been so active in the work that she already has two published academic papers to her name.

Not exactly the typical starting resume for an undergraduate student.

“[Shaw] helped me in almost every way,” Udell said. “She taught me how to analyze data and how to code, how to write the paper. I was always one step ahead of the game, because she would always set the deadline ahead of my class deadlines, so I would finish it before the rest of the class.”

“She did it herself,” Shaw said. “I tried as much as possible to let her have ownership of what she was doing, with enough oversight, but I think that was really cool for her.”


Atiyya Shaw, left, and Kathrine Udell, center, work on a research project as part of Udell's senior-year internship at Kennesaw Mountain High School. (Photo: Atiyya Shaw)
 

Udell joined Shaw in Associate Professor Michael Hunter’s research lab as part of her required senior-year internship. Her project expanded on work Shaw completed in 2014 using a driving simulator to study how drivers perceive roadway environment complexity. Udell redesigned the original experiment and geared it toward her high school peers, bringing an entirely new group of participants to research that has originally focused on Georgia Tech students.

That turned out to be extremely valuable, since most of those people were overwhelmingly new or nearly new drivers. And it led to some results Shaw and Udell didn’t expect: younger drivers perceive roadway environments as LESS complex than more-experienced drivers. At least, initially.

“We recorded months following licensure,” Shaw said. “As they gained more experience, the perceived complexity of the roadway environment started to match the [older] drivers at Georgia Tech.”

The easy answer for the results was that young drivers are simply overconfident. Shaw and Udell didn’t discredit that idea, but they also attributed the finding to inexperience.

“One of the biggest things that we noticed was that young drivers have to focus on the road so they don’t veer off the road,” Udell said. “Older drivers use their peripheral vision to stay on the road.”

“Younger drivers have decidedly very different visual search patterns because they have to fixate more on the center of their lane in order to stay in their lane,” Shaw explained. “As a result of these fixations, they search the environment less.”

Udell has completed her first semester of research as an undergraduate at Tech, and now she’s become the mentor, helping a current high school senior through his research internship with Shaw.

“Everyone is so helpful here, and so friendly, and it was so nice to be exposed to that before coming here,” Udell said. “It helped me to know that if I come here, people are going to be helpful, and they want you to succeed.”


Atiyya Shaw, left, and Kathrine Udell outside Kennesaw Mountain High School. Udell graduated last year and now is pursuing a bachelor's degree at Georgia Tech as well as working as an undergraduate researcher with Shaw. (Photo: Atiyya Shaw)
 

The experience proved so valuable Shaw and Udell also are trying to spread the word. They’ve submitted a paper on their research collaboration to help other scholars design engineering research experiences for high school students.

For Shaw, the whole process of serving as a mentor has been a natural extension of her own experiences.

As a Georgia Tech undergraduate, she worked in Hunter’s lab, eventually staying on to complete a master’s degree and now to pursue her PhD. Shaw said Hunter’s enthusiasm drives her to explore her own big ideas, and to tap into that feeling in her high school interns.

“High school students have a natural curiosity and desire to grow and learn that makes working with them an absolute joy,” Shaw said. “I love when they become excited and committed to the research question that we are exploring, and obtaining this personal 'buy-in' is the most valuable asset a research project can have.”