Undergraduate research experiences foster skills, confidence, and the desire to pursue engineering careers.
Tyrone Porter was a freshman in electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M, a historically black university near Houston, when he became curious about biomedical engineering. His school didn’t offer a degree, and few faculty members were conducting research in that discipline. So he applied for a summer research program at Duke University. He was accepted, and his world opened up.
“I was immediately hooked and knew exactly what I wanted to do for a career,” says Porter, who graduated with honors in 1996 and now is a bioengineering educator and researcher in the field of ultrasound-enhanced imaging and drug transport.
Porter’s response is not atypical, says Martha Absher, associate dean for education and outreach programs at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. As director of the college’s National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, she gets to know undergraduates from all over the country who come to work on research projects each summer. These experiences “can be life changing for a young person,” Absher says, because they provide opportunities to work with professionals and solve real-world problems. Such challenges, she adds, often spark “the confidence and drive to go on into higher engineering education and research.”
Graduates’ experiences support that claim. A survey of University of Delaware engineering alumni published in the April 2002 Journal of Engineering Education, for example, found that those with research experience were more likely to pursue graduate degrees. They also were more apt to report that a faculty member played an important role in their career choice.
Such was the case for Porter, whose job was to build electrical hardware for a data-acquisition system used in ongoing experiments. His mentor “explained what he needed, and was confident and reassuring enough to give me autonomy to get it done,” recalls Porter. “He also allowed me to observe experiments and ask questions about the motivation and clinical impact of his research.” Inspired, Porter went on to earn a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Washington in 2003. He currently teaches mechanical and bioengineering as an associate professor at Boston University, where he is principal investigator of the Nanomedicine and Medical Acoustics Laboratory and associate director of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanobiotechnology.
The academic community has long considered meaningful undergraduate research experiences with faculty members to be “one of the most powerful of instructional tools,” as a 1989 NSF report put it. America’s recent quest to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year has only increased its relevance.
Undergraduate research has merits beyond expanding the engineering talent pool. One is exposing students to the working world’s expectations, says Don Millard, a program director in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education. That’s critical, particularly in product design and development. “As engineers, we’re being called upon more and more to be innovative, to be able to create or modify products in ways that actually improve their effectiveness,” explains Millard. “Embedded in that is what we call research.” The experimental process helps students frame problems, run analyses, and understand the implications of decisions. As Millard puts it: “What are the questions I need to ask, what are the actions to get answers, what did I learn, and what do I need to do next?”
Unlike coursework, research engages undergraduates in open-ended problems with no one correct solution. “Research gives students a richer and better education experience, so they can apply what they’re learning in a lab environment,” agrees Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, who estimates that between 35 and 40 percent of his school’s engineering undergraduates are doing some type of research. “It also kind of makes the theory come to life as opposed to having equations on the white board.” Active participation in uncovering and testing new theories and facts gives students “a better appreciation for the discovery aspect of learning,” says May. Some may develop their own products or processes, and “maybe even have the opportunity to start a business.”
Beyond learning to conduct research, educators say, undergraduates reap the benefit of professional development. “One of the goals is to take really excited, bright students and turn them from dependent researchers to more independent researchers who can digest a problem and write a problem statement,” says Kimberly Cook-Chennault, who runs an REU at Rutgers University called GETUP – or Green Energy Technology Undergraduate Program. Sophomores and juniors work in a lab with faculty members and graduate students for 10 weeks in the summer on nanotechnology, alternative fuels, and energy management systems.
Hands-on research is coupled with professional training. For instance, students learn how to write abstracts, read journals, and present findings. They also receive online mentoring, funding to publish papers or travel to conferences, and other support. “What we found is they’re not often exposed to the vocabulary of these sciences and they’re not introduced to the process of presenting their work to the public – being able to write an abstract, give a technical talk, submit for a journal,” says Cook-Chennault. “It’s very different than what they write for the lab class.” Students sometimes hesitate to dig in and ask the necessary questions, she notes, but as a researcher, “you have to read things on your own.”
James Palmer, a student who works in Cook-Chennault’s lab studying potential energy-harvesting materials, learned to adjust. He says research has honed his focus, curiosity, and patience. “A vast amount of concentration was necessary to get through reading what I at first saw as boring papers,” Palmer reports. He’s now “able to visualize the sort of mind-set one needs to read scientific and engineering literature,” which has “come in handy” in his other studies.
Educators who oversee these programs say faculty typically enjoy mentoring undergraduates, even if they require extra time and patience. The experiences help them “understand how to articulate their research” and explain “theory and technology in a different way,” says Cook-Chennault. “And it’s enriching because they’re doing a good service for the students.” Plus, researchers often end up with good data sets – and they can demonstrate their commitment to outreach and diversity, a consideration for NSF funding.
Ultimately, involving undergraduates in research may be one answer to the perennial challenge of increasing the number of U.S. engineers, particularly women and underrepresented populations. For NSF’s Millard, the question is “how do you actually bring people across the bridge of what might be the prerequisite courses that students take — physics, chemistry, calculus” — and into “doing engineering?” His answer: by giving undergraduates a better context for why they’re learning what they’re learning. Research makes the learning meaningful.
Shirley McBay, a former MIT dean for student affairs who runs the Washington, D.C.-based Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) network, believes research experience is a prime way to keep students interested and motivated. She points to a highly competitive summer program QEM ran for NASA for 10 years that brought rising high school juniors and seniors from minority and underrepresented groups to several college campuses. “They were exposed to what real research was like. They weren’t just doing busy work,” McBay says. “With that early experience, there’s just absolutely no way they weren’t stimulated to pursue careers” in science and engineering. Annual feedback from the faculty was positive, she says. In fact, she jokes, out of more than 2,000 students over 10 years, “the only incident” involved two students caught kissing in the library.
Georgia Tech’s Gary May, who directed a summer research program at Georgia Tech for many years, says his main motivation was to address the low numbers of minority students in graduate programs. He would bring 35 to 40 students to campus every summer and try to recruit them for graduate school. Of the roughly 500 students who attended, three quarters went to graduate school and “half of those went here,” May says. “We’ve become a leader in graduating minority students in engineering with advanced degrees.”
Absher has run her own REU program at Duke for 25 years and says over 90 percent of her 341 students have been from minority or underrepresented populations, including many students with disabilities. These students not only go on to pursue graduate degree; they also take time to mentor others. Tyrone Porter says his positive REU experience at Duke helped him recognize the value of undergraduate research. He has served as a research mentor to dozens of undergraduates, he says, many of them women and minorities who go on to top-tier graduate schools. “It is important to me to serve as a role model and introduce as many undergraduate students to the fascinating world of research and all that it has to offer academically, socially, and professionally,” says Porter. “That has and will continue to be a guiding principle for me throughout the remainder of my career.” In so doing, he is paving the pathway to success.
By Alice Daniel
Alice Daniel is a freelance writer and instructor in journalism at California State University, Fresno.
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