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Running A Virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Program: Lessons learned

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2020 Fall ASEE Mid-Atlantic Section Meeting


Virtual (hosted by Stevens Institute of Technology)

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November 7, 2020

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November 7, 2020

End Date

November 7, 2020

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Johannes Weickenmeier Stevens Institute of Technology (School of Engineering and Science)

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Prof. Johannes Weickenmeier completed his PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 2015 and worked as a postdoc in the group of Prof. Ellen Kuhl at Stanford University. His research includes the experimental and computational characterization of soft tissues with a specific interest in the skin and brain. His current work focuses on our fundamental understanding of mechanobiological properties and mechanisms in the healthy and aging brain, as well as coupled multi-field formulations for the spread of neurodegenerative diseases, such as in Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

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Undergraduate research is a fundamental part of the research activities in most laboratories at institutions of higher education. Undergraduate students serve a wide range of functions and perform critical lab work with significant impact on a lab’s research output. These tasks range from bench work, literature surveys, data analysis, and writing. In turn, students are exposed to new learning opportunities and gain complementary skills highly suitable for their later careers. Moreover, undergraduate research is a particularly meaningful opportunity to engage students from underrepresented groups and create increased equity in preparation of their professional career. In light of COVID and resulting distanced-learning guidelines, many of these undergraduate research opportunities are eliminated and call for the development of novel programs to adequately replace previous activities. As part of our response to COVID, we spontaneously created a remote Mechanical Engineering Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Here, we report on our experience and summarize our key learnings from our successful 12-week program.

Our primary goal was to engage undergraduate students in active research. Students were matched with faculty based on their primary fields of interest, had to work a minimum of 20hrs per week, and were actively involved in their host lab routines. We organized 3 half-day workshops on research methods, scientific writing, and career planning. The program ended with a virtual conference which gave all students the opportunity to present their work and to participate in a research presentation contest. We had a total of 21 participants working in 10 different labs. The program was designed to address fundamental gaps in the engineering undergraduate curriculum: project-oriented coding experience, scientific writing, and merit-driven presentations which include project narrative development and application-oriented thinking. We conducted pre- and post-program surveys and evaluated learning outcomes for each workshop. Moreover, we inquired with our faculty advisors for assessment of perceived learning outcomes and technical skill levels of our participants. Overall, we made the following primary observations: 1. Engaging in research labs enriches the skill sets of our undergraduate students 2. Intentional mentorship fosters personal growth 3. Visibility increases commitment, effort, and professionalism 4. Sharing work output uncovers strengths and weaknesses 5. Visibility creates appreciation for one’s own accomplishments 6. Social networking- even if virtual- stimulates identification with own work

Major limitations linked to a purely virtual program ranged from the lack of access to experimental spaces, physical interaction with experiments/manufacturing, and in-person meetings. A critical component of research work is the presentation and discussion of ones own work which is particularly difficult to practice and train in a fully remote setting. Hands-on learning experiences have to be replaced with well curated project topics and can only be partially replaced. That being said, a virtual setting also holds the potential to involve larger groups of students and breaks down potential barriers to participating in research work. However, successful engagement with research has to be curated intentionally and requires dedicated involvement of faculty advisors and their research group.

Weickenmeier, J. (2020, November), Running A Virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Program: Lessons learned Paper presented at 2020 Fall ASEE Mid-Atlantic Section Meeting, Virtual (hosted by Stevens Institute of Technology).

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