Valparaiso University’s College of Engineering is leading a multi-school initiative to revolutionize how students and professors connect to pursue undergraduate research projects. The three-year plan, titled “Research 4 All,” will shift the mindset around research projects from an academic option to an entrepreneurial opportunity for students to make a difference in the world around them.
“For faculty on campus, undergraduate research is one of the most powerful methods for us to involve students in solving important real-world problems,” says Reva Johnson ’09, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering.
Other institutions taking part in Research 4 All include George Washington University, George Fox University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Olin College of Engineering, University of Washington-Tacoma, The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Campbell University.
While student research is an integral part of the education experience of many Valpo students, Professor Johnson says that the biggest obstacle for many is simple awareness of what research projects are available and looking for assistance.
“My colleagues and I have been trying to share available research opportunities with students, and we’ve increased research participation, but we are still lacking a system, and selecting research students is a pretty ad-hoc process,” Professor Johnson says.
Research 4 All will make it easier for students to find out about available research projects, lower barriers between students and research opportunities, and give more students the chance to make a real-world impact through participation. To accomplish these goals, Research 4 All is broken down into three aims: URCurious, URSkilled, and URConnected. UR in all cases stands for Undergraduate Research.
URCurious ensures that every engineering student has the experience of working on at least one real-world research project over the course of their education by integrating research into the existing engineering curriculum. This offers students a risk-free opportunity to explore alternative interests, gain valuable skills, and contribute to the engineering world in meaningful ways over the course of their required courses.
URSkilled revolves around the development of training modules for student and research mentors. Through these modules, students can earn “badges” in specific skills, gaining the qualifications — or proving to possess the qualifications — to be a part of relevant research. These can be earned on their own time or at a professor’s direction, reducing the time it takes to bring research assistants up to speed and lowering the turnover rate due to students graduating shortly after becoming qualified.
Valparaiso University has taken charge of the URConnected portion of the project. In this section of the plan, the College of Engineering is creating an online application for forging connections between students and professors using the badge system implemented by URSkilled.
“If I were a professor in need of a student with an understanding of heat transfer, I could look for students with that demonstrated capability,” says Dan Maguire, Ph.D., assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “If a student wanted to work on a project that involved heat transfer, they could establish their skill — or increase their understanding — in that area using the complementary mechanism.”
By creating this effective connection system and opening the doors for students to freely search available research projects, URConnected will shift the fundamental dynamic between students and research opportunities.
“The idea of URConnected is to recognize that students are stakeholders in the research process and to empower students in making research choices,” Professor Johnson says. “They don’t feel like they need to just take whatever is available. They see all the research opportunities available to them, and they can indicate which are the most interesting to them.”
Research 4 All will also lower emotional barriers keeping students from pursuing research projects.
“This process will be designed to be much less intimidating to students when compared with the current process, which typically involves students walking into a faculty member’s office and asking if they have any research opportunities,” Professor Johnson says.
Doug Tougaw ’05 MBA, Ph.D., P.E., dean of the College of Engineering, says that Valpo’s size and philosophy make it uniquely qualified to tackle the challenges of URConnected.
“Having the infrastructure to support undergraduate research projects is something that we can really do better than some bigger schools,” Dean Tougaw says. “These goals represent the core values of Valpo. We want to make the connections necessary to help our students succeed, and we want to make sure our students are well prepared to succeed on day one.”
Research 4 All has been made possible by $2 million in support from the Kern Family Foundation, the founders of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), a partnership of over 50 colleges from across the United States focused on fostering an entrepreneurial mindset in undergraduate engineering students. The initiative is planned to be developed over a three-year period, by the end of which all involved institutions will implement the tools and techniques developed by the three goals.
Research 4 All is just one of the many ways Valparaiso University’s College of Engineering gives students a chance to make a real-world impact in their field. Discover more about the exciting opportunities that our future professionals can take part in here.