PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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Research - The Earlier the Better

- By Lester A. Gerhardt   

Undergraduate research gives students the opportunity to break free of the classroom and learn in the world of real-life engineers.

Any adult who has struggled with the fundamentals of a foreign language while hearing the babble of bilingual children or ached from countless ice skating spills while young would-be Olympians twirled effortlessly around them knows that there's something to the old adage—the earlier the better. Young children learn languages much easier than adults do, in part because they learn language in a different portion of the brain than they would as an adult. Learning sports comes easier when learned at a younger age because the required athletic talents become instinctive and reflexive, built into muscle memory or basic intellectual capability. The same holds for engineering students—the earlier the better—which is why I advocate a strong research component as part of an undergraduate education.

By conducting research, undergraduates learn to understand and appreciate the endeavor, the general methodologies employed, and its potential impact. Along the way, students can enhance their verbal and written communications skills and work with others on interdisciplinary teams. Undergraduate research may also provide the incentive, inspiration, and motivation for a student to pursue a graduate degree, perform advanced research, and ask the critical questions—can, how, and should this work be done?

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) has made it its mission to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship at predominantly undergraduate institutions. CUR works with agencies and foundations, provides support for faculty development, shares successful models and strategies via publications and meetings, offers consulting services and a speakers bureau, and serves as a liaison with the government on important issues relating to undergraduate research. It spans a broad range of disciplines and boasts over 3,000 members at almost 900 institutions.

Many schools have independently created mechanisms to promote undergraduate interest in research. MIT, a pioneer in the field, began its Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in 1969. At my own university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we have a long-standing undergraduate research program that provides university support during the academic year. At RPI, students can also participate in a competitive, panel-reviewed summer program that provides $3,000 stipends for undergraduate research projects. Similar programs have evolved at a number of other universities. Like RPI, many schools offer a variety of ways that students can gain this worthwhile experience. These include research forums where undergraduate research teams compete for recognition and prizes for the best project; numerous courses that incorporate research projects as part of their curriculum; and many research opportunities with individual professors and research centers.

Likewise, many government agencies have special programs for promoting undergraduate research. One of the most notable is the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates. This program supports active research participation by undergraduates in any areas of research funded by NSF. It can involve students in ongoing programs or in projects specially designed for this purpose. Other government organizations offer similar programs like NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Program and the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

Industry can also provide undergraduates with research opportunities through numerous cooperative education programs. These programs give undergraduates a chance to work in an industrial environment. Co-ops are so popular at some universities that students make them a major component of their educational program. At Northeastern University, 90 percent of the 1,500 engineering undergraduates participate in the school's co-op program—one of largest in the country. Each NU student cumulatively spends a year and a half getting industrial research experience as a result. General Electric promotes co-op activities in association with its Faculty of the Future program, and Kodak sponsors undergraduate research projects in areas such as photonics.

An abundance of opportunities exists for undergraduate students in their academic communities, in the government sector, and in industry. Like learning tennis or golf, when learning to climb the ropes of research—the earlier the better. Let's all do our part to see that the next generation is properly educated in this facet, so today's students can collect their fair share of Nobel Prizes, as well as Grand Slams and Master's titles.


Lester A. Gerhardt is associate dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a fellow of ASEE, and has served as chair of the Engineering Research Council.

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