My Clark Research Reflections

by Joel Ewing

In 2016, the summer before my freshman year at UT Dallas, I participated in UT Dallas’ Clark Summer Research Program. The Clark Summer Research Program is a unique opportunity that pairs incoming freshmen at UT Dallas with research groups to gain hands-on experience for nine weeks while they work alongside talented students and faculty. For many students, myself included, it is the first exposure to academic research.

When I arrived on campus at the beginning of that summer, I was not sure what to expect.  Making the jump from my home in Kentucky to UT Dallas had unique challenges. I did not know anyone in the area, and the campus and city were unfamiliar to me.  Fortunately, I befriended several of my fellow “Clarkies” who helped me to adjust and remain some of my closest friends.

My research position was at the ArtSciLab, directed by Roger Malina and Cassini Nazir.  I was assigned to work on ARTECA, which is an interdisciplinary online database of books, journals, and other content linking the arts, sciences, and technology. ARTECA is a collaborative effort from The MIT Press, Leonardo/ISAST and UT Dallas. My design research focused on improving the ARTECA experience for college students.

Challenging design assumptions through research

From my high school experience in my science classes, research usually meant mixing chemicals over a Bunsen burner and observing the results. Research at the ArtSciLab is never this simple. Design research involves testing a product to challenge assumptions about how a product should be designed. It also requires an understanding of the people and audience(s) for whom we design.

A first draft of a design will make sense to the designer, but research is needed to inform each stage of the design process to present a better experience for the users. Research methods like surveys, quality assurance testing, user journey maps, personas, and cognitive walkthroughs taught me how to challenge and validate design decisions using exploratory, generative, and evaluative methods.

A journey map of the ARTECA site

These research methods are very different from the ones employed by my peers in the Clark program. If you are a student studying chemistry or biology, the experiments involve observing chemical transitions or organisms under very controlled conditions. As the only ATEC student in the Clark program that year, a lot of the material covered at Clark meetings was foreign to me, including topics relating to handling hazardous materials, lab safety, and keeping lab notebooks. The ArtSciLab is a research lab, but the research methods differ than the ones used at traditional laboratories.

Improving the user experience

Picture of Joel Ewing and Roger Malina at Clark Research Symposium

As a result of my research, the problems with the design of ARTECA were uncovered and addressed before ARTECA was launched. Fixes included improving the experience of finding titles, discovering related content, and navigating the ARTECA site. My research findings and contributions were built into the site, which launched later that fall. Overall, these changes make the experience a more productive and enjoyable experience for researchers. Check out the ARTECA site at arteca.mit.edu to learn more.

Image of poster explaining the ARTECA design research

As part of the Clark experience, I presented my research as a poster conference at the end of the summer at the Clark Summer Research symposium. As I presented my research and displayed the products of my work I was very grateful to have had this summer research experience and proud of what I had accomplished. The Clark Summer Research Program connected me with the ArtSciLab, where I continue research to this day. It connected me with other motivated students who are still my friends and was an excellent way to jump-start the college experience. Overall, the Clark Summer Research program taught me how important and fun research can be, and I would highly recommend the program to any incoming freshmen.