Professor André van der Hoek considers the undergraduates he mentors to be integral parts of his research team. He gives them freedom to pursue their own directions within the group’s projects and is constantly impressed by their level of accomplishment. Professor van der Hoek considers the confidence that his researchers gain to be vital part of their undergraduate education and recommends that students seriously consider pursuing a project that interests them. UROP is pleased to recognize Professor van der Hoek for his continuing passionate support of undergraduate research.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

When I started at UC Irvine, two things happened. First, I began in January, effectively after all graduate students who had been admitted in the previous year had already affiliated. Second, I taught a large introductory software engineering class. Out of that class, right before summer, one of the students approached me and asked whether she could do research with me. I remember she was one of the top students in the class, and decided (on the spot) to take her on for an experimental project. We clicked, she did great, and the rest is history. The student, Emily Navarro, eventually became a graduate student, continuing what she did as an undergraduate student for her dissertation. The work resulted in an educational environment that is, to this day, in use worldwide and earned a national award. Ever since then, I have always engaged undergraduates in my research, and they have played a huge role in the many successes our group has had.

The projects vary in all sorts of ways, but all have to do with software engineering in one way or another. Examples are the educational simulation environment on which Emily worked, a sketch-based software design environment we are now deploying to several very well-known companies, a study of developers at work in the field, an architecture development environment, a crowdsourcing environment for programming, and others. Typically, the undergraduates work on the most promising but more risky aspects of my projects—trying out directions of which we are just not sure.

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

The primary expectation is engagement. I give the students a lot of freedom and expect them to decide for themselves when and where they work, what design decisions they think they should be making, etc. That is not to say they are on their own; quite the contrary. I view the undergraduates as an integral part of our research group. They attend our weekly group meetings, report in them as do all of the other students, participate in the brainstorming on all of the projects, and take their turn in actually leading the group meetings.

In terms of selecting undergraduates, it is entirely an intuitive feel for them when they walk into my office. I have tried selecting students based on resume, but have miserably failed time and again. What counts most is my gut feel the moment I meet the person; if I follow it, good things happen. I've had students with barely a 2.0 GPA feeling all of a sudden challenged by the research, surprised by my faith in their abilities, and living up to the task and making critical contributions to our research. It's great when this happens; it alters the student's entire engagement with the university. But gut feel, that's it...

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

I am quite hands-off when it comes to day-to-day activities, and let the students decide on their own. I do get involved, a lot, during the design of our new approach/tool. That's when we collectively spend a lot of time together brainstorming, drawing on the whiteboard, discussing alternatives, and so on. This is the most fun part of research! I'll also get very involved in the writing of scientific papers out of the work. While it does not happen with every undergraduate project, about a third of my publications involve undergraduate authors, and in some cases, lead authors. Our students are quite something, and I just really enjoy seeing them do things they never thought possible!

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

In many ways. Quite a few students have gotten jobs out of their undergraduate work. Based on knowing their skills so well, I have been able to recommend them to friends at all sort of companies, from Mirth to Google to Boeing. Other students find a lot of new confidence, learning that they are much more capable than they ever thought before. I've seen quite dramatic changes in that regard; students who were shy and so-so producers who blossomed in fully engaged, strong majors who subsequently have bright careers. Yet other students gain the experience that convinces them that grad school is next. Dastyni Loksa, one of my former students, is entering the Ph.D. program at UW just this Fall—by and large as a result of his having been involved in the research.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

I've learned a lot about how different students need different kinds of guidance, how I need to trust my intuition in all sorts of situations, and how it is possible to rely on the undergraduates to do work on the critical path of a research project. I've repeatedly been able to let small teams of undergraduates take the lead on their own projects, and have them succeed in surprising me with what they came up with. It's that level of trust that makes the job so rewarding!

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

Our undergraduates really are as strong as students at any other university, and working with them is just a joy. My advice is to find a project and advisor that you like, to engage seriously, and to tap into your creativity and truly become part of the project. I work in the Department of Informatics, where just about every faculty member engages in undergraduate research the way I do. It's part of our culture. What is constant across all the work of the undergraduates with the many Informatics professors is that they have found a match and really engaged with the subject and project. We treat them as equal partners and those students who take that opportunity do great. So study the professors, look at their projects, find something of interest, talk to them, and see what happens!

Research Interests: Software engineering, software design, collaborative work, software engineering education

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '13 Jean Gehricke
Nov. '13 Sergey Nizkorodov
Oct. '13 David S. Meyer
Sep. '13 Kieron Burke
Aug. '13 Mahtab Jafari
Jul. '13 André van der Hoek
Jun. '13 Abraham P. Lee
May. '13 Sheryl Tsai
Apr. '13 Julia Reinhard Lupton
Mar. '13 Richard Matthew
Feb. '13 Jogeshwar Mukherjee
Jan. '13 Diane K. O’Dowd