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K-12 Education

Undergraduate
National Center for Women & Information Technology Career
Graduate
PROMISING PRACTICES Academic Career

Faculty Perspectives
Using REUs to retain female undergraduates
CASE STUDY: Virginia Tech University CASE STUDY: Oregon State University
Professor Scott McCrickard has worked An REU need not be administered
with undergraduates since he was a Ph.D. through a formalized program. Since 1992,
student at Georgia Tech, where he served as Professor Margaret Burnett has always
a graduate mentor in two summer outreach had one or two undergraduate researchers
programs. Both mentoring experiences working for her.
resulted in publications for him and his What does she get out of it?
students. They have also influenced his Burnett describes three kinds of benefits
research career at Virginia Tech, where he to her own career: increased productivity,
established the Virginia Tech Undergraduate relationships with new researchers, and
Research in Computer Science (VTURCS) making a difference in the students’ lives.
program in 2001. Despite enrollment The undergraduates round out her research
decreases in the major and the program’s group. When they take on research tasks
slow start, otherwise done by graduate students,
VTURCS matured to include over 50 it allows graduate students to be more
undergraduate students in 2005. In 2006,
What Do Faculty Like About
productive. She says that some of her
McCrickard expanded VTURCS with REUs? undergraduates are more productive
NSF funding for an HCI-focused REU site Researchers Anne-Barrie Hunter, Sandra than some grad students at tasks such
that targets women and minority students. Laursen, and Elaine Seymour (co- as software development, data analysis,
author of Talking About Leaving: Why user studies, and interface design. Some
Why does he continue to do it?
even have better writing skills than their
McCrickard says he benefits as much as the Students Leave the Sciences) interviewed graduate student team-members.
students. He has published several small 64 computer science, math, engineering, Burnett believes that she is not just giving
articles based on his partnerships with
undergraduates, some of which combined
and science faculty members involved opportunities to undergraduates, but that
nicely as case studies for journal papers. But in undergraduate research programs. her own research community benefits
Faculty described several benefits of as well. She writes, “These students are
he says the most valuable result is that it has
good—in fact, some go on to become
created a research group and community being involved: Faculty career gains; famous. They appreciate the extra
around his interests. pleasure of working with students as opportunities, they remember you, and
How does he work with undergraduates? research colleagues; intellectual and they remain enthusiastic about all they
McCrickard suggests giving undergraduates professional growth; and satisfaction in learned from the experience.”
simple, focused tasks. This method students’ “becoming scientists.” According to Professor Burnett, there is an
allows him to see the capabilities of the additional benefit. “Giving these students
undergraduates, and also helps his Ph.D. just a small amount of time can make a
students create focused tasks and do something with the results of huge difference in their careers. Some have never thought of graduate
those tasks. He prefers to meet with his undergraduates and graduate school, or have believed themselves unworthy of aspiring to graduate
students as a research team; these teams are composed of four to six school. These experiences change their lives. Eleven out of sixteen of my
undergraduates and his graduate students. Still, he recommends REUs have gone on to complete advanced computer science degrees.”
meeting with each undergraduate individually a few times each term as
well. As the students gain confidence and experience, they can be given How does she work with undergraduates?
more complex tasks with deadlines further apart, leading them to the Burnett says the undergraduates are regular members of her research
point where perhaps they will define their own thesis or dissertation group, like graduate students. They support software development of
research prototypes and do everything else graduate students do: help
topics. to write, read, and review papers; attend group research meetings; help
with empirical studies; and prepare posters for required presentations.

For more information, please contact Professor Scott McCrickard at the Virginia Institute of Technology (mccricks@cs.vt.edu,) or
Professor Margaret Burnett at Oregon State University (burnett@cs.orst.edu.)

Le c i a J. B a r ker and J. M cG rat h Cohoon, au t hors


www. nc w i t.o r g • N a ti o n a l C e n te r for Women & Informati on Technol ogy • copyri ght 2007
How can REUs help retain female undergraduates?

REUs Increase Enrollment in Graduate Programs and Research Models and


Careers Elements of a Positive
Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) can increase the rates at which women Research Experience
and under-represented minorities enter the highest levels of IT research and development. Whether part of a formal program or
REUs lead to greater understanding of research, confidence in research skills and general a special opportunity for individual
mastery of the discipline, and awareness of career paths requiring an advanced degree. As a students, REUs can take several forms.
result, students become more interested in pursuing an advanced degree. For example, summer experiences can
take place at another institution or
Crafting a Project for Undergraduate Success on a student’s own campus, where the
Student confidence and motivation to enter graduate school improve with positive research social and academic setting is familiar.
experiences. Positive REUs give students the feeling that they have made a real contribution, Academic-year experiences can occur
despite their lack of computing research background. Ideas for creating such an experience as part of, or in addition to, the regular
come from The University of Wisconsin’s “Entering Mentoring” manual for training course load. Many faculty advisors bring
scientists to mentor (see URL below.) It recommends projects that: undergraduates into their labs to work
• are multi-faceted, but with a reasonable scope for the time frame with their graduate students.
• are feasible in relation to the student’s existing skills, but also build on them No matter what the model, certain
• have built-in difficulties that will be faced after the student has developed some components help motivate students to
confidence enroll in an advanced degree program:
• generate data or analysis that the student can present orally or in writing • A collegial, supportive relationship
• go beyond cookbook experiments or free programming labor with the faculty advisor and/or
Faculty and graduate mentors should talk to students about their skills and interests, mentor graduate mentor
them about scientific inquiry, and establish clear expectations for project outcomes. • A large amount of time spent on
research
NSF REU Supplements: An Easy Way to Support a Budding
• Clear communication of students’
Researcher and Future Colleague readiness and outcome goals (e.g.,
The National Science Foundation makes it easy to support an undergraduate researcher. presentation of results) from the
You can ask for a supplement for almost any NSF grant – or one held by a colleague – to outset, making students feel well-
support an undergraduate researcher with a substantial stipend. Ask your program officer prepared
for details. • Student independence increases as
the research process progresses
How Can You Show Undergraduates the Benefits of a Research Career
Students also are more likely to apply
in Computing? to graduate school when their research
When advertising REU opportunities, it’s helpful to know what motivates students to experience includes guidance on
get involved. For example, many students participate in REUs because they want help choosing a graduate program, writing
in making career decisions (these students also are more likely to consider an advanced a strong application, and setting
degree as a viable option, according to research by SRI International.) A valuable tool for expectations for the graduate experience
communicating the benefits of a research career is a slide show entitled, “Why choose a and research careers.
Ph.D. in CS?” available on the Computing Research Association’s website: http://www.cra.
org/highlights/student.html.

Sources:
Handelsman, J., Pfund, C., Milller Lauffer, S., & Pribbenow, C. (2005). Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press. Available at <http://www.hhmi.org/resources/labmanagement/downloads/entering_mentoring.pdf>.
Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S.L. & Seymour, E. (2006, February). The Benefits and Costs of Faculty Engagement in Undergraduate Research and their Sources. Presented by Elaine
Seymour at the conference To Think and Act Like a Scientist: The Roles of Inquiry, Research, and Technology in the Precollege and College Years, Texas Tech University,
Lubbock, TX.
Russell, S. (2005). Evaluation of NSF Support for Undergraduate Research Opportunities. 2003 NSF-Program Participant Survey: Final Report (SRI International). Available at
<http://www.sri.com/policy/csted/reports/university/index.html#uro>.

National Center for Women & Information Technology


Revolutionizing the Face of Technology SM

L e c ia J . B a r k e r and J. McGr ath C ohoon, author s


www. nc w i t.o r g • N a ti o n a l C e n te r for Women & Informati on Technol ogy • copyri ght 2007