Designing satellites, thwarting malware, developing a motion-capture jumpsuitthese are not your typical summer jobs. But for the undergraduates who came from around the country to engage in research with ECE last summer, working on projects like these was just another day at the office.
Four ECE-affiliated research centersSpace@VT, Wireless@VT, the Center for Embedded Systems for Critical Applications (CESCA), and the E-Textiles labhost NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). The program aims to attract, retain, and prepare students for careers in science and engineering through immersive research with faculty mentors.
Patrick Herrity helped design a rocket that the Space@VT REU students launched during a space science and engineering day camp for local students. "The kids went wild," he says.
According to Scott Bailey, who leads the Space@VT REU site program with Robert Clauer, undergraduate research gives students a better understanding of the graduate school experience. "The REU allows us to bring students from around the country to get them excited about grad school," he says. "It's a good way to show students what research with us is like."
Space@VT REU launches
During its inaugural session, Space@VT hosted six REU students, alongside three alternately funded students. The session began with a week of lab tours, research presentations, and mentor introductions. Then, students had two months to complete research projects ranging from satellite payload design to radar and sounding rocket observations.
Peter Marquis (AOE '14) was tasked with modeling a satellite payload that will be launched through the NASA ELaNa (educational launch of nanosatellites) program. "We had to divvy up space between four different subsystems to make sure they would all fit in the CubeSat," he says, "I like the challenge of figuring out all of the technical aspects and overcoming each obstacle."
The experience of woking on large-scale projects can teach problem-solving lessons that are difficult to replicate with coursework. During Taylor Pearman's (EE '15) REU with the E-Textiles lab, "a lot of time was spent on troubleshooting," he says. "We developed troubleshooting skills."
Mentored by Tom Martin, Pearman partnered with John New (CPE '15) to work on a jumpsuit that uses accelerometers and gyroscopes to monitor the wearer's movements. "I was able to come in at the right level. I already knew a lot from classes, but I was learning new stuff" he explains. "REU programs allow you to apply what you learn in the classroom."
Taylor Pearman worked on a converter board that translates data between the sensors and central processing unit of a motion capture jumpsuit.
Exploring new areas of engineering
While some REU students select a site that is closely aligned to their interests and skills, others choose a program that allows them to explore an entirely new topic.
For Hannah Bowers, an engineering science student at Sweet Briar College, the highlight of her involvement with the Wireless@VT REU in cognitive communications was "being so involved in a subject that I had never heard of before."
Bowers and her project partner developed a malware detection software program for cognitive radios. "I learned a lot and would like to continue to work in security and software engineering," she says. "The REU helped me to see a clearer picture of what research at graduate school would be like."
Preparing students for grad school
During its five years of operation, the Wireless@VT REU has been consistently successful at encouraging and preparing students to attend graduate school. According to Mike Buehrer, faculty mentors have seen a majority of the site's participants go on to pursue graduate degrees. (E-Textiles has hosted REU students for about 10 years and also has a strong track record for graduate school recruitment.)
"We work closely with the undergraduate research office to put together a lot of programming for students in terms of professional development," says Carl Dietrich, principal investigator of the Wireless@VT REU site. A new addition to the 2013 program was a trip to the International Conference on Cognitive Radio Oriented Wireless Networks (CROWNCOM) in Washington, D.Can experience that Dietrich calls "very relevant to what we were doing."
Under the mentorship of Chao Wang, two of CESCA's 2013 REU students also gained valuable conference experience. Markus Kusano (CPE '14) and Kevin Hoang (CPE '14) each published a paper about their projects at prominent software engineering conferences.
Moreover, Kusano released the mutation testing tool that he built as open-source software, and both students helped lead the NSF STEP outreach program for incoming college students at Virginia Tech. "They were quite productive," comments Wang.
In spite of their compelling projects, REU students are decidedly not "all work and no play." Participants enjoy opportunities to learn from the diverse perspectives of their colleagues from different majors and universitiesboth inside and outside of the lab.
Getting to know visiting students in the Space@VT REU was one of the most exciting aspects of the program, says Patrick Herrity (EE'14), who completed data analysis of atmospheric gases measured by the SABER satellite. "We went on hikes and went out to local restaurants," he recalls. "They told me a lot about their experiences at their colleges and engineering programs."
This summer, the REU faculty mentors at Virginia Tech will be working together to promote interaction between the various REU sites on campus. "All REU students will probably be together in one dorm," says Bailey. "There will be a seminar series about the nuts and bolts of going to grad school."
Bailey is looking forward to bringing in a new group of students for the 2014 REU, praising the merit of the program for students and faculty alike. "It changes the whole energy of the place when you double the number of students," he says. "You can get a lot of work done. Students do great things."