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Scholars Program in Undergraduate Research Q&A

A new Scholars program is available to current freshmen and sophomores registering for spring 2018 semester classes. The Scholars Program in Undergraduate Research will accept 20 students into its first cohort, but interested students must apply by November 22. The extended campus program in Paducah will offer the same program to four students.

Sebastian Bryson, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and co-director of the new program, says students participating in undergraduate research avail themselves to numerous open doors.

“I enjoy seeing students get opportunities because of their research activities, such as being able to present their research at domestic and international conferences. If only for the mentorship opportunities, every engineering undergraduate should seek to have at least one undergraduate research experience.”

Students have already begun applying for a coveted spot in the new program. We visited with Isabel Escobar, chemical engineering professor and co-director of the program, to learn more about what participating students can expect.

What is the Scholars Program in Undergraduate Research? Can’t undergraduate students already participate in research experiences?

Yes! The UK College of Engineering has a long history of strong undergraduate research thanks to incredibly committed undergraduate students. Several of our faculty members have even published with undergraduate students.

However, many students who want to do research don’t really know what is involved. So the first few weeks to a month of their time in a professor’s lab is spent learning how to do research. We felt we could serve those students better by creating a standard for them. So in this Scholars program, we are going to take 20 students in their freshman or sophomore year and teach them how to do research through the EGR 199: Introduction to Research class. We will teach them how to develop a hypothesis; how to develop a set of experiments to test the hypothesis; how to collaborate; how to analyze data and describe their findings. By the time these students are done with this first class, they will have a much deeper understanding of research.

Where will they apply that knowledge?

After completing the introductory class, students in the program can sign up to do research in a professor’s lab, participate in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) here or at another institution or apply for a coop—whatever option allows them to get actual research experience. We will also work with them on scholarship and REU applications. Ideally, they will do this for a semester or even a whole year. Then, during their last year, they will present what they actually did for their research experience. Together, they will get a chance to say, “This is how we’re changing the world with research.”

A significant advantage of the program is that when students in the cohort begin their research experience, they will be going in with a different understanding of research. They will know how to do a literature review, design experiments, analyze data and more. They will be a lot more independent. Instead of being a laboratory technician, they will be an active part of a research group.

Is this program open to all majors? How would a civil engineering students and a chemical engineering student work together on the same project?

We decided to use five of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering as the basis for the experiments students conduct in the EGR 199 course. The breadth of the Grand Challenges makes it possible to invite students from any major into the program. So when you look at the Grand Challenge of sustainable infrastructure, which deals with aging infrastructure in the world, one aspect of that has to do with pipelines and water access. That makes it a perfect project for chemical engineering and civil engineering majors. Cybersecurity might appeal to computer science majors, but also any student who works with computer modeling. Each one of the Grand Challenges requires some level of collaboration. There is something for everyone.

If I am considering graduate studies, will the Scholars Program in Undergraduate Research give me a taste of what that might be like?

Absolutely! We already have classes for graduate students that get them ready to do research; this program is essentially a mini-version of that. As we envision it, participating in this program will give students interested in research a leg up on everybody else. When they are starting to look at graduate schools and visiting universities, they will be able to say they’ve been involved in research. Hopefully, the introduction to research course will enable them to produce such high-quality research that they are published in a journal.