Texas A&M offers undergraduates hands-on research experience despite pandemic

23-Jun-2020 11:35 AM EDT, by Texas A&M University

Newswise — Each year, engineering students from all over the United States gear up for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and other research internships. This year started off no different as students prepared their applications, received acceptance letters from the programs of their choice, and were eagerly awaiting their internships.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation, campuses around the country shut down and most REU programs came to a screeching halt. In the midst of the chaos caused by COVID-19, Texas A&M University’s online Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, or O-REU, began to take shape so that students didn’t miss out on this important opportunity.

“A regular residence-based REU program takes around a year to set up and organize, and we had basically two months’ time to set up our online REU program,” said Dr. Michael Demkowicz, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “We were reinventing the wheel for a fully remote version of the REU program in very little time.”

The scale of the undertaking was unprecedented. Unlike traditional REU programs that admit around 10-15 students, the Texas A&M O-REU program planned on accepting four times that number. In addition to finding mentors to guide students through their research projects, schedule seminars and organize other training opportunities, Demkowicz and his team had to raise funds for more than $250,000 to support the students, advertise the program, collect applications and review them on an accelerated timeline. The initiative to create O-REU started in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and grew into a college-wide program.

To students whose REU programs had been canceled, news about O-REU offered a ray of hope.

“My original summer internship got canceled,” said Matthew Kuner from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “But I was drawn to the prospect of the O-REU program because I would be given a research position that was essentially guaranteed, which is tough to find in today's climate.”

Demkowicz recalled that when they first opened up the application process they had around a half dozen applications. But soon the applications started to pour in.

“The flow of applications grew exponentially,” he said. “The rate at which applications were coming in was much greater than what we could actually process.”

Based on the availability of research mentors and students’ research interests, Demkowicz and his team accepted a total of 58 students into the O-REU program. About a third of them were applicants previously accepted into Texas A&M REUs and the rest were new applicants from all over the country.

“The O-REU program is one of the pioneering programs conceived and deployed this summer at Texas A&M,” said Dr. Dimitris Lagoudas, deputy director in the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, associate vice chancellor for engineering research and professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. “We wanted to give an opportunity to undergraduates from around the nation to work with multidisciplinary research groups and get a unique experience in conducting research remotely.”

It was such a great opportunity that when Briteny Fang from The University of Texas at Austin heard about being accepted in the O-REU program, her parents assumed that this fully paid, fully remote internship must be a scam.

“I actually had to arrange a teleconference call to speak with her and reassure her that I'm never going to ask her for her credit card number and that we are actually launching the O-REU program,” Demkowicz recalled.

In addition to taking a deep dive into research, students attend seminars, hone their technical communication skills and network with scientists within and outside of Texas A&M. In particular, two national laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Laboratories, are supporting and mentoring O-REU students. These unique aspects of the O-REU program are in place to make students better prepared for graduate school.

“The way the O-REU has been laid out also gives me the chance to work on my presentation skills and provides more things to showcase for my graduate school applications,” said Advika Chasetti, a student from the University of North Texas.

For the faculty who are mentoring students, the O-REU program is an opportunity to interact with students who might apply to the College of Engineering’s graduate programs. Also, by adapting the REU program to an online platform, the organizers have put the spotlight on research areas such as artificial intelligence, computational modeling, theory, and data-driven topics in science and engineering that do not involve laboratory experimentation.

“It is a unique moment. Students found themselves with their summer plans canceled while witnessing our society's reliance on science and engineering to get our world out of this crisis,” said Dr. Dilma Da Silva, associate dean of faculty success and professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “The O-REU program enables students to engage in research projects remotely, providing them with a community to support their learning and a roadmap to explore new ideas.”

In addition to NSF, other sponsors of the O-REU program include the Center for Research Excellence on Dynamically Deformed Solids, the Texas A&M NASA University Leadership Initiative, the Texas A&M National Laboratories Office, the Texas A&M Institute for Data Science, the Texas A&M High Performance Research Computing Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory.

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