Georgia Tech Research Horizons

Learning by Doing

Undergraduate research at Georgia Tech teaches students
by involving them in faculty projects.

By Jane M. Sanders

In 1990, a Georgia Institute of Technology freshman was struggling in her classes when she signed up for a part-time laboratory research job that sounded like a fun way to make some money for school.
photo by Walt Ennis

An undergraduate research experience at Georgia Tech had a significant impact on the career direction pursued by Cindy Harrell Willis. She now holds a doctoral degree in chemical engineering and works as a researcher at W.L. Gore & Associates, the manufacturers of Gore-Tex™ fabric.

She reported to the lab of chemical engineering Professor Charles Eckert, who after talking with the student, believed she was intelligent, but bored in class. Eckert – whose self-proclaimed role is to open doors for undergraduates to see what they can accomplish – accepted the mission.

"I gave her work that would have been challenging for a Ph.D. student," Eckert recalls. "I was lucky. I guessed right. She was bored. Within a year she was getting A's in her classes. Research got her excited, and she was able to do things I didn't think an undergraduate could do."

Today, that former student, Cindy Harrell Willis, holds a doctorate in chemical engineering and is a researcher at W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex™ fabric.

"My experience with undergraduate research convinced me to go on for five more years of graduate school," Willis says. "Doing research at Georgia Tech changed my career path. I knew a graduate degree would open up more doors for me, and it has."

Eckert, the J. Erskine Love Jr. Institute Professor, and other Georgia Tech faculty members have involved undergraduates in their research – in one form or another – throughout their careers. They have found the experiences not only have a positive impact on students, but also give them personal fulfillment.

"A research experience adds something that we cannot do completely in class," Eckert explains. "It teaches students teamwork and leadership. It teaches them the applications of what they're learning in the classroom, and it makes their class work more meaningful."

For Eckert, the experience is fun. "I'm here because I'm a teacher," he says. "I get my satisfaction from seeing people become successful. If I didn't feel that way, I could work somewhere else, but I really enjoy working with students. It's more fun to me to see a student discover something than to discover it myself."

photo by Gary Meek

Professor Charles Eckert has mentored many undergraduate students in his chemical engineering laboratory through the years. Now, sophomore Ashley Wallin works for him. She has already decided to pursue an advanced degree and a career in chemical or bioengineering research.

Recognizing the benefits to both students and faculty, Georgia Tech administrators have begun an initiative to increase participation in research programs for undergraduates. Meanwhile, administrators are also encouraging more senior faculty to teach an occasional freshman- or sophomore-level class, in hopes of getting students excited by a discipline and possibly interested in research.

"Involving undergraduate students in research really goes to the heart of what we intend for the undergraduate education to be about," says Bob McMath, vice provost for undergraduate studies and academic affairs. "We're not simply opening up their heads and pouring stuff in. We are really equipping them to be lifelong learners. We're equipping them for discovery and success."

Georgia Tech's administration is committed to excellence in both research and teaching. "The question is how do we leverage the tremendous human resources we have on the research side to increase the quality of undergraduate education," McMath adds. "We simply have to take advantage of who we are."

That means convincing more senior faculty members to hire undergraduates as research assistants, or enrolling them in research, independent study and internship courses, McMath explains. The number of research assistants is unknown, but in the 1999-2000 school year, enrollment in research-oriented courses numbered 1,120. (This number represents some overlap of students.) So only about one-tenth of undergraduates are taking these courses. Meanwhile, 74 students are conducting research in the Georgia Tech Research Institute as co-op students, alternating semesters of working and attending classes.

To boost participation in undergraduate research, the administration is offering faculty some modest incentives, including lab equipment funds and travel money for students to present their research at conferences. Also, several faculty members with projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) have gotten additional money by involving undergraduates. Others have operated NSF-funded, summer research programs for undergraduates.

The Entertainers
Professors use creative approaches to teach difficult concepts.

In a freshman chemistry class, Professor Mostafa El-Sayed clarifies the difficult concept of entropy by comparing the driving forces behind it to analogous ones in marriage. His students perk up and listen.

When two chemicals react to form one final product, you cut each chemical's degree of freedom. This leads to a decrease in entropy, and nature does not like it. But if the product has stronger and more chemical bonds than the two reacting chemicals, the reaction will proceed. Similarly in marriage, each person gives up some freedom in hopes of experiencing stronger bonding and a better life.

Most students easily relate to this situation. Now they understand entropy plays a role in chemical reactions.

"Undergraduates are wonderful young people," says El-Sayed, one of the Georgia Institute of Technology's senior professors who regularly teaches at that level. "You can see it in their eyes whether you have reached them, more so than you can with graduate students. With undergrads, the feedback is spontaneous. Teaching them is more fun."

El-Sayed and others at Georgia Tech – including some full-time researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute – are setting an example the institution's administration is hoping many other senior professors will follow. In fact, the administration has appointed a committee to formulate a strategy for giving undergraduates more opportunities to benefit from the knowledge of senior faculty – both in the classroom and the laboratory.

"There is a tradition across the country of prominent people getting involved with undergraduates like this as sort of a responsibility of their stature," says Dr. Bob McMath, vice provost for undergraduate studies and academic affairs. "But for many of them, it's also an interesting intellectual challenge to take this incredibly complex knowledge and distill it in such a way that it is intelligible to undergraduates.... The ability to articulate what we know as scholars and researchers in a way that makes sense to non-specialists is one of the most important things we do. It makes our science very public."

El-Sayed thrives on this communication challenge. "Teaching undergraduates keeps you in touch," he says. "All the time you have to be recalibrating things to relate to what they are thinking.... Really, I benefit as much as they do."

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professor William Chameides says relating the concepts of his discipline to young undergraduates requires him "to do a bit of entertaining." For example, in his freshman earth systems class, he shines a flashlight around the room to explain the effects of sunlight on the Earth's surface, and Chameides employs a ball and string to explain light as an electromagnetic wave and a photon.

"The advantage I have in earth science is that the outdoors and the Earth are things all of us can relate to on various levels," Chameides says.

In addition to giving young undergraduates an exciting introduction to their disciplines, many of these senior professors also want students to learn critical thinking skills that will benefit them throughout their college years and into their careers.

"We get students here who have done well in high school and on the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) exam," says chemical engineering Professor Charles Eckert. "They have had 12 or more years' experience in learning how to avoid mistakes. Students who get good grades and do well on the SAT are very good at avoiding mistakes. But if students are going to be creative in research, they need to learn to make mistakes. They need to know that not only is it OK to make mistakes, they have to be willing to try new things. And they need to know that we consider it OK for them to try new things and make mistakes.

".... So what we're teaching them, even in the freshman year, is a different kind of thinking," Eckert adds. "They still need to be able to do integrals and derivatives correctly. But when it comes to broader ideas, I want them to have the right and the impetus to try new things."

McMath has interviewed many students, and they want the unique experience of having senior-level, distinguished faculty members teaching them, he says. They realize the benefits even before the opportunities arise.

"We are pleased by how many of our senior faculty are already engaged in undergraduate research and teaching opportunities," McMath says. "Now we need more of these senior-level people who are teaching undergraduates because they just want to do it. They want to bring what they know – their incredible research bases of knowledge – to the undergraduate level."

— Jane M. Sanders

Incentives are great, faculty members say. But perhaps more important to the administration's campaign is the power of persuasion by one's peers. Many faculty members concur with and practice McMath's educational philosophy.

In the College of Sciences, every student is given an opportunity to participate in some sort of research, and within some degree tracks, research is a requirement, says Gary Schuster, dean of the college.

"Often it is the research experience that motivates students to high-level achievement," Schuster says. "It is the process of investing yourself emotionally in the search for answers to questions. Nobody else in the world knows it before you do. It's a great thrill."

One student reports the exhilaration of his summer research experience last year in the chemistry lab of Professor Mostafa El-Sayed. Man Houn Han conducted an experiment on the interactions between gold nanorods and semiconductor particles when they are mixed.

"The experiment was not that successful because the expected phenomenon did not occur," Han says. "However, it was the best experiment that I have ever had in my college years.... I learned how a research experiment is conducted, and what it takes to be a researcher. I know I have lots to learn, but I am very confident that I am ready for the next step. Since my goal is to be a successful researcher and educator, this experiment will be the base of everything I do in the future."

In the College of Engineering, a variety of research programs are engaging undergraduates. For example, a team of 55 students worked on a research project called FutureTruck. The team had to transform a Chevy Suburban into a hybrid electric vehicle. While maintaining the vehicle's ability to carry cargo and pull heavy loads, they had to reduce its fuel consumption and air-polluting emissions. In a national competition, the team won two first-place awards.

In the College of Computing, Assistant Professor Amy Bruckman started the Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Computing in 1998 with support from Microsoft. Participants conduct research, publish technical papers and present their findings at conferences.

"Students learn better if they work on something they really care about," Bruckman says. "They use the knowledge they have gained from their classes. And they have an opportunity to build relationships with graduate students and faculty, who can become their role models."

In the Ivan Allen College – which includes economics, history of technology and public policy – students are involved in independent study research courses and internships. For example, in the School of Public Policy, Associate Professor Ann Bostrom and Professor Richard Barke hired an undergraduate for an NSF-sponsored project on the effects of privatization on risk perception and environmental policy in Eastern Europe. "We hired an undergraduate public policy major with excellent statistics skills – but as important, great enthusiasm – to help us with data analysis," Barke says. "He extended our capabilities and inspired us to apply statistical techniques that were not part of our original research plan."

The College of Architecture operates six research centers, all of which involve undergraduates. Some of the centers work on projects for industry, and students are regularly involved in this work, says Thomas Galloway, dean of the college. These centers relate to rehabilitative technology, geographic information systems, interactive multimedia for animation and rendering, advanced wood products, construction research and smart growth.

As an undergraduate, master's degree student Cory Benson worked with a team of undergraduate researchers in the multimedia lab, creating Web-based information systems, developing Web sites for the College and applying virtual reality technology to visualize buildings in 3D. Benson is continuing to conduct research, now in the Advanced Wood Products Laboratory.

Still another research opportunity is a cooperative program where students alternate semesters of taking classes and working as a "co-op." The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) hires many of these students. While helping develop software at GTRI, co-op student David Phillips says, "I experienced a larger project in the real world and got real, hands-on experience with the collaboration and teamwork required to combine the work of different people into a finished product."

Another GTRI co-op student, Jessica Shearer, worked with Professor Krishan Ahuja to develop "Quiet Curtains," which transform curtains that hang around a nursing home patient's bed into a product that not only provides visual privacy, but also acts as an acoustical shield. The curtains could also be used in offices and schools. Shearer is listed as a co-inventor on the product patent. And co-op student Danny Diaz is working on a Department of Defense project to allow communication between radar systems operating on different platforms to form a common tactical picture for operators.
photo by Gary Meek

In the College of Computing, Assistant Professor Amy Bruckman regularly meets with undergraduate students who conduct research under her advisement.

"GTRI benefits from talented, bright students and their hard work on research projects," says director Edward Reedy. "They are an integral part of our project teams. We also have the added benefit of looking at students who might be potential researchers or scientists after graduation and want to come to work for us. Students also bring a fresh perspective to the research challenges of today's R&D environment."

Another opportunity is the learning community sponsored by the Women in Science and Technology Program, co-directed by Professor Mary Frank Fox and Associate Professor Carol Colatrella. In this pilot program,a group of female students voluntarily live together in one section of a residence hall. There, they have guest speakers and other interaction with faculty and campus visitors. Each student has a faculty mentor, and all are engaged in research. This program could be a model for a more expanded effort, McMath says.

No matter the discipline, undergraduates report that their research experiences are valuable in many ways. Shearer, an applied physics major, found that her experience put her ahead of her peers in class. For example, she had already helped write and publish a technical paper when she was given a report assignment in an advanced lab class. "I had a huge jump on my classmates because I already knew how to write a technical report," she says. "I knew where errors could occur and what kind of details to pay attention to and record."

Diaz also discovered a complementary relationship between his classes and research. "All of my coursework has played into my research," says Diaz, a computer engineering major. "The research has helped me apply general concepts I have learned in my coursework."

Undergraduate researchers also have the opportunity to mature and improve skills they will need in their careers. "Doing research has helped me with my presentation skills," Diaz says. "I have learned to convey my thoughts and ideas to a group. I've learned responsibility. Things have to be done at a certain time or else.... And working in a research environment makes you think for yourself a lot."
photo by Gary Meek

Professor Mostafa El-Sayed taught undergraduate student Man Houn Han during a summer chemistry research program last year. Han calls the experience the best so far in his college career.

Research experiences also help students make educational and career decisions. Both Eckert and El-Sayed have had students about to quit school when they began research and changed their minds. "Research is one important way to connect students to something meaningful at Georgia Tech," McMath says. "Connecting like this increases the likelihood of their graduating."

For other students, research has helped clarify their decision-making. Chemical engineering major Ashley Wallin has been working in Eckert's lab since the spring of 2000. "Doing research has shown me what I want to do and what I don't," she says.

Like many undergraduate researchers, Wallin, just a sophomore, has already decided to pursue an advanced degree and a career in chemical or bioengineering research.

"Exposure to research at the undergraduate level is essential to students who want to go to graduate school," says GTRI senior research engineer Rich Combes. "As an undergraduate, they will be in a less-demanding research role than graduate research assistants. But when we identify students with ability, we give them as much work as they can take on.... Having this research exposure gives students a better understanding of the value of a graduate degree.... They start to see their path on a personal level."

That path eventually leads many undergraduates to careers in research. "If you talk to most scientists and ask them what experience convinced them to become researchers, by and large they will say that research at the undergraduate level was the key factor," Schuster says. "It was being involved in the research culture, in prying out each of nature's secrets."

When faculty reflect on their reasons for involving undergraduates in research, they reply with both practical and philosophical answers. In GTRI, Ahuja cites the cost and time advantages.

"It's hard to win large research contracts unless you are creative," Ahuja explains. "Quite a bit of our work is experimental research that doesn't require technicians with high-level knowledge – for example, taking routine measurements in a wind tunnel. But this work done by undergraduates is very valuable. It allows us to be creative and competitive in the research contract market."

Ahuja had to invest a lot of time to train co-ops when he first started hiring them. But eventually the trained researchers taught the new ones. Now, Ahuja only directs co-op students' research through regular meetings. "I see having five co-ops as like having 10 extra arms doing very productive work," he adds. Ahuja's students, meanwhile, get rewarded with co-authorship on at least one technical paper, travel to conferences, sometimes co-inventorship on patents and experience that makes them hot commodities in the job market.

El-Sayed echoes Ahuja's point on productivity. "Undergraduates know their time here is limited, so they want to accomplish something," he explains.
photo by Stanley Leary

Undergraduate student Jessica Shearer worked with Professor Krishan Ahuja to develop "Quiet Curtains." The concept transformed privacy curtains surrounding nursing home patients' beds into noise-reduction shields. The curtains may also be used in offices and schools.

Faculty members also benefit from students' enthusiasm. "Our students bring fresh ideas and perspectives to research projects," says Barke from Public Policy. "And we all know that one of the best ways to learn is to teach others, so working with undergraduates often draws new ideas out of faculty researchers."

Eckert has experienced this fresh perspective. "One reason I like working with undergraduate researchers is their utter irreverence," he explains. "They simply don't know what can't be done, so they do it. All too often in industrial research, researchers are reluctant to undertake risky projects because they see them as potential career-enders. Students are fearless in this regard."

And then there's the reward of mentoring students. "Mentoring is why we're here," McMath says. ".... At the end of the day, this is simply who we are. In addition to being a great graduate research university, we are a public university that is educating close to 10,000 undergraduates at any given time. As members of the faculty, we need to be involved with them."

With many faculty members and students sharing their success stories of undergraduate research and also agreeing on its multiple benefits, the Georgia Tech administration is hopeful about increasing participation.

Bruckman believes that is possible. "What I find is that a lot of faculty members have never thought about involving undergraduates in research," she says. "But when they think about it, they believe it will be mutually beneficial. So this is an opportunity to educate faculty about this."

Questions remain about organizing a more formal undergraduate research program. For example, Bruckman asks, "How many students can be meaningfully involved given faculty members' time limits?" And how do you ensure that students are given actual research to do, not "busy work"? A committee formed by the administration is addressing some of those questions, and Bruckman is a member.

"I believe Georgia Tech is moving in a great direction, and I'm there to help support it," Bruckman says.

McMath adds: "Georgia Tech is making the improvement of teaching and learning a major emphasis. Our niche for doing that is to take the strengths of a research university and apply them."

For more information, contact Robert McMath, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA 30332-0325. (Telephone: 404-894-5054); (E-mail:

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Last updated: Feb. 16, 2001