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CBiRC Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Brandi Geisinger and Mari Kemis serve as evaluators for the NSF Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which particularly focuses on undergraduate student research training. Through participation in the REU program, science and engineering students develop their skills through experiential learning with the Center’s interdisciplinary research. Guided by CBiRC faculty, postdocs and graduate students, undergraduates become a part of a team involved in the development of new integrated catalytic systems for the conversion of bio-based feedstocks to industrial chemicals. Opportunities exist for the specialization of research in one or a combination of CBiRC thrust areas: biocatalysts for pathway engineering, microbial metabolic engineering, chemical catalyst design, or life cycle analysis of biorenewable chemicals. The program further integrates hands-on research with a series of weekly lectures by CBiRC faculty and other center-wide interactions, which include lab tours, workshops, and meetings, and the opportunity to present student project results to the CBiRC community.

Annual evaluation of the REU program includes pre- and post-program surveys, annual focus groups, and follow-up surveys. Mentors of CBiRC REU students are also surveyed about their experiences working with students in the program. Additionally, a survey of effective mentoring strategies is now being used to learn about mentoring within CBiRC and, more broadly, the graduate student body at Iowa State University. The evaluation of the program has been informed by other studies of REU students and outcomes, as well as best practices for evaluation (Bauer & Bennett 2003; Brew 2003; Cobb 1994; Eagan et al. 2011; Gonzalez-Espada & LaDue 2006; Haen et al. 2012; Handelsman et al. 2005; Hathaway et al. 2002; Lopatto 2004; Lopatto 2007; Pascarella & Terenzini 2005; Russell 2004; Russell et al. 2007; Sadler et al. 2010; Seymour et al. 2004; Zydney et al. 2002). Impacts of the evaluation include: 1) Understanding the value of the CBiRC REU program in preparing undergraduate students to attend graduate school in related fields; 2) Developing an ERC-wide survey to understand the impacts of REUs and mentoring more broadly; 3) Developing a validated mentoring scale disseminated and used widely with REU and graduate students; and 4) Supporting and encouraging data collection activities that demonstrate impact of programs and provide guidance for program improvement.

In addition to annual evaluation data collection activities, a summative, legacy evaluation of the CBiRC REU will include a follow-up of all CBiRC REU participants through PY8 to gauge the impact of REU participation on students’ graduate studies and career paths. Additionally, RISE is hoping to conduct a broader survey of NSF REU participants to learn about mentoring and the impacts of REU programs on students’ graduate studies and career paths.