National Science Foundation Grant Advances Academic Excellence through Diversity

The University of Virginia Department of Materials Science and Engineering announced today a new summer program beginning in 2022 to help undergraduate students conduct research and build leadership skills. The program is tailored to students from populations underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including first-generation students and students with diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, age and sexual orientation.

The program is made possible by a National Science Foundation grant to establish a Research Experiences for Undergraduates site at UVA Engineering focused on Advanced Materials Synthesis.

David L. Green, associate professor materials science and engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, serves as principal investigator. Jerrold A. Floro, professor of materials science and engineering, serves as co-principal investigator.

Their work will begin in September, as the team prepares to recruit the first group of ten undergraduate students to participate in a ten-week program on UVA Grounds in summer 2022.

Green and Floro will recruit undergraduates throughout Virginia and neighboring states in the Southeast, in partnership with Hampton University, Piedmont Virginia Community College, Germanna Community College and Lord Fairfax Community College.

Each community college offers an engineering degree; students who meet standard criteria have guaranteed transfer access to Virginia’s four-year public universities. Students selected to participate in the Advanced Materials Synthesis Research Experience will build their skills, networks and resumes to accelerate and ease this transition. 

“Our vision is to strengthen capabilities, not only of our students but also in our institutions,” Green said. “We are sharing ideas on how to make our curriculum exciting and relevant to a wide group of students. We are also adding texture to each other’s programs based on the strengths of our degree programs.”

UVA Engineering faculty will gain insight from partner institutions’ strong programs in mechanical and electrical engineering. They also anticipate borrowing from their partners’ success with biomedical-related degrees such as pharmacology. Reciprocally, Green and Floro look forward to sharing UVA Engineering’s expertise in materials science and engineering. UVA and Hampton University, for example, are exploring development of joint courses and eased faculty access to UVA’s Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility.

Green is also working with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Virginia-North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. The alliance strives for diversification of the STEM workforce, with an emphasis on increasing the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds earning baccalaureate degrees and matriculating to graduate school.

“As members of the UVA Engineering community, we recognize that we have missed opportunities to work with top-notch faculty and students, absent a formal, strategic partnership with HBCUs and minority-serving institutions,” Green said. “We are heartened that the NSF believes in our promise and trusts our ability to pool our knowledge and experience.” 

The Advanced Materials Synthesis Research Experience for Undergraduates site will immerse rising sophomores through seniors in authentic materials research projects. They will join one of a dozen state-of-the-art, federally funded research projects involving advanced materials synthesis of metals and soft materials such as polymers.

“Hands-on learning for undergraduates is the right pathway to excellence in engineering,” Floro said.

Collectively, the research projects represent the technical diversity within the fields of materials science and chemical engineering. Each project demonstrates the value of the structure-properties-processing paradigm that underpins research and development of advanced materials and highlights the research strengths across both departments. 

The research projects are organized to give each undergraduate student ownership over a specific track to advance the team’s effort. Faculty and graduate students will introduce the undergraduates to additive manufacturing and printing, a disruptive technology that offers design flexibility in the build process, rapid-prototyping and on-demand manufacturing.

Selected projects in nanomaterial synthesis investigate the formation, structure and new functionalities of “patchy” nanoparticles, 2D materials and metal organic frameworks. Other projects focused on materials development and discovery feature novel electro-magnetic materials and alloys able to resist corrosion and perform at extreme temperatures. Lastly, projects led by faculty in the Department’s Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering will explore flow batteries, alternative ways to synthesize 2D materials and corrosion of additively manufactured materials.

Students participating in the summer program will learn soft skills along with hard science. Faculty and mentors will supplement the students’ technical training with opportunities for professional development, including classes on effective communication and ethics and coaching sessions to develop leadership skills that will set the students up for success in graduate school and STEM careers.

“This program is a win-win for students, faculty and institutions,” Green said. The students themselves will gain technical training and expertise, while REU professional development training improves their broader career skillset and professional network. Graduate student mentors will receive training and feedback in project and team leadership.

The partnerships supported by the National Science Foundation grant will expand curriculum sharing and development, provide access to research facilities and create opportunities for partners and students to share their experience and research findings with a broad audience.

Additionally, a program evaluation by Caitlin Wylie, assistant professor of science, technology and society at UVA Engineering, will add to the body of knowledge in educational research with respect to the specific benefits of hands-on learning for students.

“We want to understand how participation in research affects the undergraduates’ learning and overall professional development, beyond simple measures of persistence in science and engineering,” Wylie said.

“Materials scientists and engineers work in industries that are critical to Americans’ livelihoods and good health,” Green said. “We need graduates who are in touch with community needs, who can tackle complex problems with creativity and first-hand experience. Our partnership, and the undergraduate research experiences we are creating, will attract future materials scientists and engineers who are at home in the communities they serve.”