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NSF‐REU Site on Neural Engineering: Aiming at High Research Standards (work in progress)

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Biomedical Division Poster Session

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Page Numbers

24.944.1 - 24.944.8



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Paper Authors


Raquel Perez Castillejos New Jersey Institute of Technology

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Dr. Raquel Perez-Castillejos is an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Her research ( focuses on the development of tools for cell and tissue biology using micro- and nanotechnologies. Raquel obtained her Ph.D. with the National Center of Microelectronics in Barcelona. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Miniaturized Systems (Univ. São Paulo, Brasil) and later at Harvard University with the Whitesides group. Dr. Perez-Castillejos is co-director of the NSF-funded REU summer program for Neuroengineering and faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at NJIT.

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NSF‐REU Site on Neural Engineering: Aiming at High Research Standards   As described by the National Science Foundation (NSF), REU sites are summer programs that offer Research Experiences to Undergraduates with the goal of “engag[ing] a number of  students  in  research.”[1]  In  NSF‐funded  REU  programs,  about  ten  students  from different parts in the country meet at the REU hosting institution and perform research and career‐development activities for 10 weeks.  The REU program [2] at our Institute is the first one that focuses on Neural Engineering: a topic hot in research and also highly sought  after  by  students.  Neural  engineering  is  a  rapidly  growing  interdisciplinary research area that takes an engineering approach to analyze neurological function and to understand,  repair,  replace,  or  enhance  the  nervous  system.  The  main  goal  of  a  neural engineer is to develop solutions to neurological and rehabilitative problems. The REU site in  neural  engineering  is  led  by  our  biomedical  engineering  department  in  collaboration with the medical school; the two institutions collaborating for the REU are strategically located only 3 blocks apart from one another.  The REU program at our Institute is organized in 4 research teams (with 2‐3 students in each  team)  working  on  4  aspects  of  neural  engineering  (Materials  for  neural  tissue engineering;  Neurofunctional  and  neurobehavior  analysis;  Multicellular  neural  tissue engineering;  Neuromuscular  control).  In  addition  to  introducing  and  encouraging student  to  pursue  advanced  degrees  in  the  area  of  neural  engineering,  the  REU  site focuses on preparing students for productive careers in research—either in academia or industry—by  means  of  (a)  introducing  students  to  the  research  process;  (b)  mentoring students  to  become  independent,  intellectual  thinkers;  and  (c)  teaching  the  art  of technical communication.  The REU program at our Institute is organized in 4 research teams (with 2‐3 students in each  team),  with  each  team  working  on  one  of  the  4  main  aspects  of  the  very interdisciplinary  field  of  neural  engineering:  neuro‐materials,  analysis  of  the  neural system,  neuro‐tissue  engineering,  and  neuromuscular  control  and  rehab.  Each  research team  have  one  main  faculty  advisor,  one  graduate  coach,  and  two  or  more  supporting faculty  advisors  who  work  in  a  similar  area  of  research  as  the  main  faculty  advisor.  In order  to  implement  the  main  objective  of  the  REU  Site  (i.e.,  preparing  students  for productive careers in research—especially in neural engineering), each team in the REU was  given  an  independent  research  project,  related  to  the  work  in  the  lab  of  the  main faculty advisor, but the goals and the tasks in the REU research projects were separated from  those  carried  out  by  graduate  students.  In  this  way,  REU  students  were  able  to organize  their  tasks  quite  independently  (instead  of  following  the  lead  of  a  graduate student leading the project). The REU projects were also chosen to be self‐contained in the  sense  that  the  goals  of  the  project  could  be  achieved  by  the  end  of  the  10  weeks  of REU instead of becoming just a part of a larger project led by a graduate student. Because the  project  was  self‐contained,  each  REU  team  was  expected  to  submit  an  abstract  to  a national  conference  in  the  neural  engineering  field  (the  Biomedical  Engineering  Society annual  meeting,  BMES,  was  chosen).  The  possibility  of  presenting  their  own  work  at  a national  conference  motivated  the  REU  students  enormously  during  the  summer.  The success of this approach has been demonstrated: after two years of running the REU on neural  engineering,  all  REU  teams  (8)  were  able  to  submit  an  abstract  to  the  BMES conference, with 7 of the teams having their abstract accepted (6 for a poster and 1 for an oral presentation).  As an additional tool for coordinating the tasks in the REU, we used a web‐based, freely available  educational  tool—namely,  a  wiki—as  a  collaborative,  interactive,  remotely accessible  electronic  lab  notebook  (ELN).    The  wiki‐ELN  concept  provides  a  number  of benefits  to  the  REU  participants—both  students  and  faculty—as  it  allows  to  (i) synchronize  different  activities  carried  out  simultaneously  by  different  members  of  a team  at  different  locations/labs,  (ii)  document  the  research  progress  continuously  from anywhere  using,  for  example,  a  smart  phone—which  emphasizes  the  importance  of reporting the research process continuously, not only when something “works”—and (iii) receive  and  respond  to  peer  comments—which  develops  student  awareness  on  the relevance of peer review in scientific research.    As  defined  by  Wikipedia  (probably  the  most  widely  known  wiki),  a  wiki  “is  a  website whose users can add, modify, or delete its content [using] a web browser” by means that do  not  require  any  previous  knowledge  of  webpage  programming.[2]    Wikis  have  been used previously for educational purposes, for the exchange of information between K‐16 educators,  and  for  communication  between  the  members  of  research  labs  in  higher education  settings.  In  the  search  for  web‐based  tools  that  would  support  access  to  an electronic  lab  notebook,  we  looked  to  accomplish  several  goals  for  our  NEURON  REU: interactivity  (to  provide  student‐to‐student  and  student‐to‐faculty  interactions),  real‐time connectivity (to enable the synchronization of tasks between different members of one  team  and  among  teams),  and  ease  (to  empower  all  users  to  benefit  from  the  tool regardless  of  their  web  coding  skills).    Additionally,  we  looked  for  a  tool  that  could  be easily adopted by others in any other summer program.  For all these reasons, we chose a wiki  on  [3],  which  provides  free  use  of  their  wiki‐hosting  service  for educators in K‐16 through higher education institutions.   We  believe  that  our  effort  to  focus  the  attention  of  the  students  and  faculty  onto producing  a  nationally  competitive  abstract  with  their  research  has  resulted  in  higher standards  in  the  way  research  was  performed.  The  wiki‐lab  notebook  also  helped  to making  visible  the  importance  of  recording  results  and  research  data  daily  and  with quality.  We  acknowledge  generous  funding  from  the  NSF  REU  program:  “REU  site: Experiences in Neural Engineering” Award No. 1156916. References:  [1] REU program:  [2] Wiki, as defined on Wikipedia:  [3] Wikispaces:  

Perez Castillejos, R. (2014, June), NSF‐REU Site on Neural Engineering: Aiming at High Research Standards (work in progress) Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--22877

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