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Hands-On Research Experience Despite the Pandemic

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online REU, illustration

Credit: Texas A&M University

Most U.S. National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) internship programs sought by students across the United States came to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold earlier this year. That's when Texas A&M University began putting together an online-REU program to maintain students' access to this important opportunity.

Students with an eye on the REU program began the year the same as those in years past. They prepared applications, received acceptance letters, and were awaiting their internships. Then campuses were shut by the pandemic, and most REUs with them. .

"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," says 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-to-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," says 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."

When the application process first opened they had around a half dozen applications, but soon the applications started pouring in, Demkowicz says. "The rate at which applications were coming in was much greater than what we could actually process," he says.

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," says 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."

When Briteny Fang from The University of Texas at Austin learned she'd been accepted into the O-REU program, her parents assumed the fully paid, fully remote internship was 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 says.

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," says 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," says 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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