A good problem isn’t hard to find

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On March 20, 2006

There’s nothing like wrapping your mind around a good problem, and getting your hands on it too. This requires a certain amount of trial and error. Take, for instance, wheelbarrow racing – which can be tricky. Jon Schneider, an aerospace engineering graduate, says participating in a wheelbarrow race during St. Pat’s Games was one of his most memorable experiences at UMR.

It’s doubtful, however, that wheelbarrow racing figured prominently in landing Schneider, AE’87, a job at The Boeing Co. What did influence Boeing was Schneider’s research experiences as an undergraduate at UMR. That was a few years before the Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experiences (OURE) program was officially created to promote such things.

“Not many people did official undergraduate research back then, because there wasn’t a strong reason to do it unless you were really just interested in a topic,” Schneider says. “I took advantage of an opportunity and conducted research (with K.M. Isaac, professor of aerospace engineering) on the turbulent interactions of cross flow jets. This was a terrific opportunity that significantly influenced my receipt of a job offer from Boeing.”

And that’s why Schneider is such a fan of OURE, which was started on campus in 1990. Now there is a strong reason to do undergraduate research. UMR undergraduates may apply for a $1,000 OURE scholarship each year. The money is meant as an incentive to do the research and as a reward for completing it. (Students get $500 up front and $500 when the work is done.) The key, according to Schneider, is for students to recognize the opportunity and take full advantage of it. One of the students who is intent on taking advantage of undergraduate research opportunities at UMR is Schneider’s stepson, Kevin, a freshman in computer science.

Schneider says Kevin selected UMR after a visit to campus that included conversations with faculty members about research possibilities. “Taking those few moments out of their day helped influence his decision to attend UMR, ” Schneider says.

Harvest Collier, vice provost of undergraduate and graduate studies, thinks experiential learning is one of UMR’s most bankable strengths. “Building a culture of research among our students will help us continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest students, gain access to research funding, and solidify us as one of the nation’s premier technological universities,” says Collier, who oversees the OURE program and also acts as a project advisor.

OURE students – this year there are 130 of them – work on individual projects or in small groups. The research is always conducted under the direction of a faculty advisor. To participate, undergraduates must submit a proposal for funding to Collier’s office the year before research starts.

Currently, an Introduction to Research and Experimental Design program is being piloted across campus. In this program, students “are guided to come up with new research topics, hot topics in their discipline,” Collier says. “The goal of the program is to have students develop simple research proposals that may be converted to OURE projects. They work with faculty to come up with a single research question, one which they might initiate investigation on. At that point, the scientific method of trying to prove their hypothesis begins.”

This, according to Schneider, is also where the real learning starts. “In research, things don’t always turn out how you expected,” says Schneider, who cites as an example some work he recently did – and then revised – on a hypersonic missile flight demonstration program for Boeing. “Besides instilling the importance of not giving up, the value comes from being able to understand why results were different and doing one of two things – adjusting your approach to get the expected results, or leveraging the unexpected outcomes into new opportunities.”

OURE students are required to share their research results publicly as part of the experience. Each April, the students display project posters at the Capitol rotunda in Jefferson City. This year’s event is April 4. Then they share their work at the UMR Undergraduate Research Conference, an event that was started last year on campus. “The conference is unique because it is a contest,” Collier says. “Students are responsible for answering questions, interpreting data, showing they contributed – it’s what they’ll be experiencing out there in the real world.”

Collier is currently advising two chemistry students, Kylee Hyzer and Kyle Anderson, who are trying to determine if soybean oil can be used to make eco-friendly paint.

In keeping with the theme of undergraduate research opportunities, students from a UMR journalism class were asked to research and write the OURE articles on the following pages. Among the other projects highlighted by our guest writers are one team’s attempt to engineer a miniature satellite, a history major’s research on the old tradition of “freshman fights” at MSM and a group effort involving the use of wireless sensor networks to detect wildfires.

OURE attracts students from all departments on campus, and the formation of interdisciplinary research groups is encouraged. Any undergraduate may submit a proposal for OURE funding. “We haven’t had to turn anyone away yet,” says Collier, acknowledging that funding for the scholarships could become a problem as more students take advantage of the program.

Schneider doesn’t want to see lack of funding get in the way of a good thing. In fact, he is so impressed with OURE that he recently made a $1,000 donation to support it and also secured a matching gift from Boeing. Collier was grateful for the unexpected donations. “We want to offer every student an opportunity to learn by doing,” he says. “Engineers like to get their hands on a problem, and so do our students. They want to know, is there a lab experiment that goes along with this?”

The answer is, yes, there are plenty of lab experiments at UMR. And if that’s not enough, there’s always wheelbarrow racing.

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On March 20, 2006. Posted in Features, Spring 2006