Research Experience for Undergrads

No one ever fell in love with engineering by reading a textbook.  Knowing this, many Engineering School faculty members welcome undergraduates into their labs each summer as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU).

“When you are in the laboratory, you’re trying as hard as you can to find an answer to a problem that’s never been solved before,” says Jerrold Floro, associate professor of materials science and engineering and co-principal investigator of one of the three REU grants awarded to the School. “You begin to see the knowledge you’ve learned in the classroom in a new light, as a tool to be used, not something to be memorized and repeated.”

Currently, the Engineering School has three groups of REU students in attendance every summer.  Floro is the principal investigator for an REU organized around the theme of Surface Thin Film Science and Engineering. In addition to being co-principal investigator on that project, Carolyn Vallas, the director for the School’s Center for Diversity in Engineering, is the principal investigator for an REU with the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, an NSF program designed to increase diversity in the STEM professions.  Finally, a number of REU students are supported by the ASSIST Nanoscale Engineering Research Center.  Electrical and Computer Engineering Professors John Lach and Benton Calhoun are part of this program.

This summer, the Engineering School hosted 28 REU students, about half from the University and half from other institutions, including community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.  The REU students receive weekly stipends in addition to room and board and are matched with faculty members who share their interests.

Many faculty members, like Biomedical Engineering Professor Shayne Peirce-Cottler, host a student every year.  When Peirce-Cottler was an undergraduate, her professors opened their labs to her, allowing her to learn about research.  “I am running a lab today because of them,” she says.  “I feel an obligation to open my doors to student who are seriously interested in research.”

But no matter what their future career choice, Peirce-Cottler feels that the REUs teach an invaluable lesson.  “There is nothing more educational than an immersive, hands-on experience where the student participates in an authentic research project—developing something new or seeking to understand something for the first time,” she says. “Performing research requires both creative thinking and analytical thinking. When students perform research they develop both of these skills, and even more importantly, they learn to recognize when and how to use them.”

For Alicia Minor (BME ’17), a student in Peirce-Cottler’s lab, research was a revelation  “I thought you could just jump in and begin experimenting,” she says.  “I realized that there is a lot of background preparation you have to do before getting started.”

Once in residence, students spend their days in their labs under the direction of graduate students.  They are expected to take part in all lab activities including weekly lab meetings. “Everyone challenges the students to gain as much from their experience with us as possible,” Vallas says. “But we also provide the support they need to succeed.”  

Karen Alvarez, a student at Baltimore County Community College, agrees.  “I appreciated that my mentor, Professor Lach, always had an open door whenever I had a question,” she says. “From the first day, everyone in the lab made me feel part of the team and helped me with my project.”

“Their nine weeks here goes by very quickly,” Floro adds. “Each lab has its own training and mentoring program, but it usually takes five or six weeks to for students to get up to speed.  Once they do start collecting data, though, they are incredibly productive.  I always wish I could have my REU students for another month.”

Gavin Garner, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and another REU host agrees. “I see an amazing transformation in terms of their maturity and dedication towards doing research. Once they got into it, they truly rise to the occasion. They become more confident in their own abilities to contribute, more independent, and genuinely inspired to discover and create new things on their own.”

Students also take part in a variety of professional development activities that complement their immersion in the lab. Floro moderates a weekly journal club, where they hone their public-speaking skills by summarizing an article related to their research.  Their fellow students not only ask about content, but also critique their presentation. Students then apply the lessons learned to the 20-minute presentation on their work that they give at the day-long REU Research Symposium that ends the session.

“Giving those presentations was very helpful because they force you to organize your thoughts and communicate them in a way that other people can understand,” says Charles Howard (MAE ’16), who worked with Garner. “In the process, you really solidify your knowledge of your topic.”

But none of the organizers think it reasonable to expect undergraduates to spend their entire summer in the lab without a break.  They take REU students tubing on the James and spend a day at Kings Dominion.

The REU students’ connection to the Engineering School doesn’t necessarily end when the session is over.  They are encouraged to make a poster presentation at a major conference in their field—and their names often appear as contributors on research papers from their labs.

This last fact suggests that the students are not the only beneficiaries of the program.  “The REU students who have worked in my lab over the years have brought an enthusiasm, curiosity, and fresh perspective that not only contributed to our existing projects, but also took our research in new directions and seeded new projects,” says John Lach. “The annual stimulus of undergraduates always reinvigorates my lab.”

Lach is committed to bringing even more REU students to Engineering School labs.  Thanks to his efforts, there will be a fourth REU cohort at the Engineering School next summer.  Lach’s Wireless Health REU was just funded by the NSF.