Faculty Perspectives (Case Study 1)

Using REUs to Retain Female Undergraduates

WHAT DO FACULTY LIKE ABOUT RESEARCH EXPERIENCES FOR UNDERGRADUATES (REUs)?

Researchers Anne-Barrie Hunter, Sandra Laursen, and Elaine Seymour (co-author of Talking About Leaving: Why Students Leave the Sciences) interviewed 64 computer science, math, engineering, and science faculty members involved in undergraduate research programs. Faculty described several benefits of being involved: faculty career gains; pleasure of working with students as research colleagues; intellectual and professional growth; and satisfaction in students’ “becoming scientists.”


CASE STUDY: VIRGINIA TECH UNIVERSITY

Professor Scott McCrickard has worked with undergraduates since he was a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech, where he served as a graduate mentor in two summer outreach programs. Both mentoring experiences resulted in publications for him and his students. They have also influenced his research career at Virginia Tech, where he established the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research in Computer Science (VTURCS) program in 2001. Despite enrollment decreases in the major and the program’s slow start, VTURCS matured to include over 50 undergraduate students in 2005. In 2006, McCrickard expanded VTURCS with NSF funding for an HCI-focused REU site that targets women and minority students.

Why does he continue to do it?

McCrickard says he benefits as much as the students. He has published several small articles based on his partnerships with undergraduates, some of which combined nicely as case studies for journal papers. But he says the most valuable result is that it has created a research group and community around his interests.

How does he work with undergraduates?

McCrickard suggests giving undergraduates simple, focused tasks. This method allows him to see the capabilities of the undergraduates, and also helps his Ph.D. students create focused tasks and do something with the results of those tasks. He prefers to meet with his undergraduates and graduate students as a research team; these teams are composed of four to six undergraduates and his graduate students. Still, he recommends meeting with each undergraduate individually a few times each term as well. As the students gain confidence and experience, they can be given more complex tasks with deadlines further apart, leading them to the point where perhaps they will define their own thesis or dissertation topics.

 

CASE STUDY: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

An REU need not be administered through a formalized program. Since 1992, Professor Margaret Burnett has always had one or two undergraduate researchers working for her.

 

What does she get out of it?

Burnett describes three kinds of benefits to her own career: increased productivity, relationships with new researchers, and making a difference in the students’ lives. The undergraduates round out her research group. When they take on research tasks otherwise done by graduate students, it allows graduate students to be more productive. She says that some of her undergraduates are more productive than some grad students at tasks such as software development, data analysis, user studies, and interface design. Some have even better writing skills than their graduate student team-members. Burnett believes that she is not just giving opportunities to undergraduates, but that her own research community benefits as well. She writes, “These students are good—in fact, some go on to become famous. They appreciate the extra opportunities, they remember you, and they remain enthusiastic about all they learned from the experience.” According to Professor Burnett, there is an additional benefit. “Giving these students just a small amount of time can make a huge difference in their careers. Some have never thought of graduate school, or have believed themselves unworthy of aspiring to graduate school. These experiences change their lives. Eleven out of sixteen of my REUs have gone on to complete advanced computer science degrees.”

How does she work with undergraduates?

Burnett says the undergraduates are regular members of her research group, like graduate students. They support software development of research prototypes and do everything else graduate students do: help to write, read, and review papers; attend group research meetings; help with empirical studies; and prepare posters for required presentations.


References

  • For more information, please contact Professor Scott McCrickard at the Virginia Institute of Technology (mccricks@cs.vt.edu) or Professor Margaret Burnett at Oregon State University (burnett@cs.orst.edu.)

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon