Centralized planning eases logistics for busy faculty

Faculty who want to work with keen, diligent undergraduate students can be hindered by many obstacles. Time, money and logistics -— how to find the right students and how to get them (if they’re not already at WSU) to campus — are among the most daunting.

But WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME) has found ways around these roadblocks, and the Graduate School is collaborating with MME to leverage that experience to benefit the entire university.

In the works is a summer research program that would bring undergraduates to the Pullman campus from early June to early August. Like MME, some other units already conduct similar programs (please see earlier WSU Today article at http://www.wsutoday.wsu.edu/completestory.asp?StoryID=2060). But Graduate School Dean Howard Grimes wants to tap the expertise of these various efforts to sponsor a campuswide program for students and faculty in all disciplines.

Funding at hand
Science disciplines generally have an easier time getting funding for such programs. David Bahr, MME associate professor, has supported a program at WSU for seven years through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site funded through a National Science Foundation grant. “Site” programs, where students work full time during the summer, complement “supplement” programs, where existing NSF grantees apply to add undergraduates to their existing program. Bahr said the NSF is eager to provide these supplements, and he encourages faculty with NSF grants to apply for them.

Grimes, meanwhile, said the Graduate School will provide funds to ensure the summer undergraduate research program can accommodate nonscience and non-engineering faculty and students, as well.

Bahr and Grimes envision undergraduates working with faculty in their particular disciplines and also participating in social gatherings and general workshops — such as how to use the library and how to critically evaluate peer-reviewed research.

Students also will be introduced to aspects of graduate student life at WSU, in hopes that they might continue their education here. More than 30 percent of the students in Bahr’s summer program have come to graduate school at WSU, demonstrating that summer research can be an effective method to attract future graduate students.

“The idea is to bring students to WSU and show them our excellent faculty, campus, facilities and community,” Grimes said. “We hope to form an early connection with these students,” he said, adding that attracting more and better graduate students, particularly Ph.D. students, will help WSU increase its stature as a research university.

Time and logistics
Bahr’s experience will help WSU get the summer undergraduate research program off the ground. His years of heading the MME program have taught him about the logistics of finding undergraduate students, matching them with faculty, getting them to campus, locating housing and feeding them. Now he’ll share that expertise campuswide, so individual faculty or units won’t have to wade through these particulars themselves.

Similarly, Bahr’s experience has shown that undergraduates don’t demand as much faculty time as some busy faculty might fear.

“We’ve found that 1-5 hours of faculty interaction a week is just as good as 5-10 hours,” he said. “Students do need access to professors, but they also need time with graduate students and with their co-students.”

For more on Bahr’s REU program, see the College of Engineering and Architecture article at http://www.cea.wsu.edu/pages/default.asp?PageTextID=231.

Making it happen
Grimes and Bahr anticipate the summer undergraduate research program will attract 20-25 students this summer, including 10 that participate in the NSF site program through the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. In the next three years, they hope to see the number triple and then hold steady.

Toward those goals, they’re asking interested faculty, departments and units to contact them about participating. Bahr would like to hear from other units that already conduct summer undergraduate research programs about the potential of coordinating practical aspects, like applications, travel, lodging, etc.

In particular, there will be a centralized website where undergraduates from other schools can submit applications. From his experience, Bahr has found that students from other schools are as likely to attend graduate school as are WSU undergraduates.

Both Grimes and Bahr encourage faculty with NSF grants to apply for supplemental REU funding, and Grimes invites questions from nonscience units that wish to participate.

Individual faculty who have an undergraduate student they’d like to work with during the summer, or who would like information on students they might consider, also can contact Grimes.

“This campuswide experience should be a unique opportunity for students to feel like they’re part of the larger community,” Bahr said. “It can be something that is truly unique to WSU, something where we excel.”

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