Nov. 4, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 4

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    Symposium will showcase undergraduate science research

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Nearly 75 students and faculty members from 12 colleges and universities throughout the Midwest will participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Physical Sciences and Mathematics at the University Friday, Nov. 5, through Sunday, Nov. 7.

    Pew Midstates Science and Mathematics Consortium annually sponsors the symposium, which is devoted to improving undergraduate education in the sciences. Activities begin Friday with registration, welcome activities and a dinner at the Ramada Inn Lake Shore. Student presentations will begin at 8:30 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday at the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, 5720 S. Ellis Ave. Student presentations will cover such topics as the detection of space debris in low-Earth orbit, elemental analysis of aerosol particles and a system for reconfiguring the World Wide Web.

    Sidney Nagel, the Louis Block Professor in Physics and Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, said he has witnessed a slow trend toward increasing undergraduate participation in research. “Certainly at our University, we’ve been encouraging students to get involved in research early and often,” he said. In the most successful cases, the resulting work was published in some of the leading scientific journals, including Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters.

    Each year, approximately a dozen of the 20 graduating senior physics majors at the University pursue the bachelor’s thesis option, a yearlong series of courses that involves students in research. Students graduate with honors if they receive a grade of at least a “B” for the thesis and achieve a grade point average of 3.0 or higher in their required undergraduate courses.

    The thesis option enables students, many of whom will enter graduate school, to get a feel for doing research and to have more access to research faculty.

    “Research is not the same as taking a class. It really has a different feel,” Nagel said. “At the beginning, the problems students look at in their research may seem small compared to what they might learn in class, but then they begin to see how it all ties together.”

    Additional research opportunities exist in the physical sciences through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer programs in the departments of Physics and Chemistry and at the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

    Funded by the National Science Foundation, the REU programs are designed mostly for students who attend colleges and universities where research opportunities are limited. The Physics Department’s REU program, which supports 15 students each summer, targets women and minorities.

    “The goal is for each person to have his or her own project, a real project, not a bottle-washing job, but actually to be in command of a particular experiment or line of theoretical work,” said David Grier, Associate Professor in Physics, who coordinates the REU program for the Materials Research Center.

    Students get paid $300 a week in the summer REU programs, which also include oral research presentations of their work in the middle of the program and at the end of their 10 weeks on campus.

    “It’s quite astounding how much some of them grow in the process,” Grier said. The students’ first faltering steps at the podium in the middle of the summer often give way to a great deal of excitement at the end. “That’s why I keep doing the program––these talks at the end really make it worthwhile.”

    The University also benefits from having undergraduates in the lab.

    “We use it as a recruiting tool for graduate school,” said Joseph O’Gallagher, Senior Lecturer in Physics, who established the Physics Department’s REU program in 1990.

    Undergraduates also enable scientists to explore more imaginative or risky lines of research than would otherwise be practical, Nagel said. Grier made a similar point.

    “You really do get a very highly motivated, if untrained, set of hands to work on a problem that maybe ordinarily you wouldn’t have the resources to work on,” Grier said. “If you pick the right person and the right problem, then you can actually get a lot done in 10 weeks.”

    The Undergraduate Research Symposium provides students with benefits that go beyond the opportunity to perform their own research. “The symposium provides an opportunity for undergraduates to make public presentations on their research for the first time and to talk to their peers from other institutions,” said Nagel.

    Members of the Pew Midstates Science and Mathematics Consortium are Beloit College, Beloit, Wis.; Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa; Hope College, Holland, Mich.; Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Knox College, Galesburg, Ill.; Lawrence University, Appleton, Wis.; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.; St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.; Washington University, St. Louis; and the University of Chicago.