taken on by undergraduates provides students the opportunity to learn
how to do projects, to get to know a professor, and to add an impressive
item to their résumés. Students may become so involved
in projects that they will work without pay or credit because they take
pride in their research and want to complete it.
teaches laboratory skills, computer techniques, and practical time-management
skills, particularly project planning and completing tasks on time.
Weekly meetings with an adviser require students to practice informal
oral presentation skills, which are very important in industrial settings.
The written report is an opportunity for students to improve their writing.
The formal presentation of a paper at a meeting or conference gives
students another opportunity to polish communication skills.
involves learning by discovery, which undoubtably promotes retention
and understanding of subject matter. Since research always involves
new situations, it helps prepare students to adapt, learn quickly, and
solve difficult problems. In addition, it helps them learn patience
and perseveranceessential skills for all engineering graduates.
undergraduate students who are conducting research can be both time
consuming and rewarding, and professors may have to develop their own
rewards since few administrations give significant, or any, credit for
this activity. If the project and the student are carefully chosen,
it is possible to publish research with undergraduates. However, the
rate of production of research will be lower for most undergraduates
than it is for graduate students. The major reason for involving undergraduates
in research is to help them learn how to conduct research, not to accomplish
the research itself. Mentoring students is a chance to get to know them
well and perhaps have an impact on their lives. Watching students mature
and grow can be one of the major rewards of academic life.
advising starts with making sure that students have the right background.
They need to have completed the appropriate core courses and taken or
currently be enrolled in the appropriate electives; otherwise, they
will spend most of a semester getting up to speed. Projects
need to be well defined, have a high probability for success, and involve
topics that undergraduates can understand without years of advanced
need direction and supervision. Since procrastination is often a major
reason for failure, regular meetings with professors providing evaluation
and feedback are important. Students need help developing high but realistic
goals with specified time to finish the project and write the report.
Revising the time line is often necessary. Optimal advising occurs when
students work directly with a professor. Assigning them to work with
an advanced Ph.D. student or post-doctoral student can also be effective,
and this arrangement can provide practical experience in mentoring for
the supervisor. However, since a more experienced student may use a
fledgling for his or her own benefit (the student may be asked to wash
laboratory dishes and do other menial work), the professor needs to
closely supervise the mentor.
in teams is a somewhat different research experience than working individually,
and many students prefer it. More experienced undergraduates can teach
others the techniques required. Teamwork is very valuable when there
is an industrial sponsor who wants the results yesterday.
In addition to helping pay for the research, industrial sponsors provide
significant motivation for undergraduates. The demands of outsiders
seem more real to students than those from professors.
undergraduate research is one of the few bridges between undergraduates
and the typical university's research mission. For colleges without
Ph.D. programs, undergraduate research can help in the recruitment of
both students and faculty. And students who conduct research as undergraduates
are more likely to go on to graduate school, helping to ensure that
there will be an adequate supply of professors.
Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell
Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.
Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's
chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.