University of Oklahoma: Engaging Undergraduates in Research

Engaging undergraduates in research has three main challenges: (1) explaining what research professors do, (2) finding openings in labs, and (3) figuring out if the research and team is a good fit. University of Oklahoma (OU) Student Chapter overcomes all three with their Undergraduate Research Symposium, a mini-conference with poster presentations of research in the department. 2017 OU Student Chapter president Dean Rufeisen started it, and, due to the event’s success, current president Trace Youngman decided to do it again.

Professors, graduate students, and even some undergraduates prepare a poster and present, much like they would at an AIChE Annual Student Conference or Student Regional Conference. But instead of being a competition, it’s for undergraduates to learn about on-going research. Nevertheless, presenters still have incentive. Post-docs and graduate students get to practice for upcoming presentations, and professors get an opportunity to fill lab positions.

“Organizing it wasn’t that bad,” explained Dean. “The only equipment you need are easels, posters, and food. The department had easels and bought food. We printed the posters. It was a little tough to get the professors to be interested at first, since they already have so much on their plate, but our AIChE faculty advisor helped sell the idea in meetings.”

Back by popular demand

Being face-to-face with so many presenters, attendees could learn about the research, figure out if there are openings in a lab, and determine if it’s a good fit in a matter of an hour. As intended, the number of students that did undergraduate research increased significantly. What's more, OU got first place in the 2017 Mid-America Student Regional Conference’s poster competition and went on to the Annual Student Conference to present. When professors, as busy as they already are, asked for the chapter to do the symposium again the following year, it was clear the event was a hit.

The chapter hadn't expected professors to request the symposium's return, but faculty found it particularly beneficial. It turned out that while professors were generally aware of the research that their colleagues were doing, they often weren't familiar with the details. Preoccupied with his or her own work, a professor doing research in membrane separation, for example, might not know the nuances of a colleague's research in drug delivery. The symposium gave professors an opportunity to learn and discuss one another's work, building community among faculty.

There are a lot of ways to get undergraduates engaged in research. But, OU Student Chapter’s way is efficient and fun. Due to its success, it's likely something the chapter will continue doing in the future.