TEES

Research for undergraduates as a graduate recruitment tool

August 16, 2010

As the nation’s need for technology grows, so does the need for recruiting talent to provide cutting-edge research and discovery to fuel the U.S. economy with technological advances. One of the most promising means of recruiting talent into graduate school is to give undergraduate students a taste of graduate school through participation in research. TEES supports such endeavors through its partner campuses.

A number of Texas A&M University System institutions, which are all TEES partners, provide opportunities for undergraduate science and engineering students through summer research experiences, giving them a head start with the graduate school environment and encouraging them to apply. Several of these have programmatic efforts through their partnership with TEES.

At West Texas A&M University, biology faculty Drs. Raymond Matlack and Rocky Ward have run a successful summer program for undergraduate research under the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) Site: Ecology and Environment of the Southern High Plains. All told, the three-year program provided 24 undergraduate students with summer research experiences on regional ecological and environmental issues. Students also had opportunities to participate in activities expected in the academic world such as making conference presentations and submitting articles to technical journals. Eight student abstracts and papers have been published or accepted so far, and more than half of the students who participated in this REU are either enrolled in or applying to graduate school.

"One of the goals in the university’s strategic plan is, by 2014, to have at least 20 percent of our bachelor’s students participate in research. Programs such as this REU contribute toward that goal," said Dr. James Hallmark, provost and vice president for academic affairs at West Texas A&M.

At Texas A&M University-Kingsville, undergraduates have a chance to work alongside graduate students and faculty at the $10 million NSF Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology--Research on Environmental Sustainability of Semi-Arid Coastal Areas. In another of the university’s projects, the NSF-funded STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program), an innovative feature, the May-mester Research Opportunity, brings in community college students from the region to take part in undergraduate research. Through these programs, more than 160 undergraduate students have conducted research projects in the laboratories of Texas A&M-Kingsville engineering faculty.

For more than 20 years, the Undergraduate Summer Research Grant (USRG) program at Texas A&M University’s Dwight Look College of Engineering annually has engaged about 35 to 40 undergraduate engineering students to work on graduate-type projects under the supervision of Texas A&M faculty researchers. USRG activities complement the NSF REU program, providing program support for the college’s existing NSF REUs. A GRE preparation course and other professional development seminars are mandatory. Students follow professional research practice, from writing a research plan proposing what they will do to presenting their research findings at the 10-week program’s closing conference, which takes place this year August 6.

The USRG is open to students from the A&M System schools as well as from other institutions. This year, two Texas A&M-Kingsville seniors and one Tarleton State University student (see photos) are participating in the program. Dr. Robin Autenrieth, associate dean for graduate programs and professor of civil engineering, who oversees the program, intends to have even more students from System engineering programs where there are not opportunities for students to enroll in graduate programs in engineering disciplines.

"In the past several years, more than 50 percent of USRG students have gone on to attend graduate school," she said. "Students who participate in cutting-edge research are much more likely to continue their studies into a graduate program. We want even more USRG participants to pursue advanced degrees and are working to encourage U.S. citizens to consider advanced degrees."

A&M System Vice Chancellor for Engineering, Dr. G. Kemble Bennett, has a funded NSF grant to look at promising practices with undergraduate engineering education. A topic of these discussions has been undergraduate research.

"Undergraduate research is one area where The Texas A&M University System can work together to promote graduate school. An undergraduate research program is a great mechanism for allowing these students to have a research experience that can cement their commitment to an advanced engineering degree."

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