- 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.