Beyond the Classroom
EECS Undergraduates: SuperUROP, EECSCon, and USAGE
Over the past two years, an important focus for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department has been to expand the research experience and opportunities for our undergraduate students, while also fostering a stronger sense of intellectual community and ownership in the Department.
The UROP program provides an excellent experience for students, allowing them to sample and engage in advanced research activities. UROP was launched in 1969 as a bold experiment to bring younger students into the research laboratory for the first time. More than 80 percent of the Institute’s undergraduates now participate in this widely copied program. (See M.I.T. Numbers.)
Yet only a small fraction of our EECS undergraduates had been choosing a sustained multi-semester project that could result in meaningful and publication-worthy research. Looking back on my own experience as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, an extended research opportunity played a key role in getting me excited about graduate school and an academic career. I got to interact with my faculty advisor and graduate students while accessing the most advanced tools and equipment.
EECS launched SuperUROP in the fall of 2012, in collaboration with the UROP Office. The program provides EECS juniors and seniors who have already completed a conventional UROP experience the opportunity to engage in a sustained research project, with the goal of producing publishable results or advanced prototypes that could be commercially developed. I would like to see SuperUROP serve as a jump-start on graduate school, a startup accelerator, and an industry-training boot camp, all rolled into one.
SuperUROP builds on the UROP program and provides greater exposure to the rewards and complexities of scientific investigation and engineering development. In addition to working with a faculty member and his or her graduate students and postdocs for the entire academic year, participants come together in a two-semester class, “Seminar in Undergraduate Advanced Research,” (6.UAR) that meets weekly.
The subject covers topics ranging from selecting projects and research topics in EECS to entrepreneurship and ethics in engineering. Part of the objective is for students to gain breadth in EECS research and application areas, including through interaction with invited speakers from academia and industry. There is a strong emphasis in the class on improving communication skills through writing technical papers and learning to give poster and oral presentations. Students also learn to distill their research ideas and results into concise pitches aimed at audiences ranging from fellow students and engineers to industry executives and venture capitalists. The seminar includes social opportunities for students to get to know each other and develop a sense of community.
Upon completion of the program, SuperUROP students receive a certificate in advanced undergraduate research, with a designated focus area. In its inaugural year, 77 students completed the program, and 81 students are enrolled for AY2014.
The SuperUROP program is supported by the Research and Innovation Scholars Program (RISP), which funds students through named scholarships during the SuperUROP, and also provides some associated discretionary funding for the host research group. RISP is enabled by generous support from corporate and individual sponsors, all of whom are committed to growing the SuperUROP program and enhancing the undergraduate student experience at MIT. The industry mentors provide project suggestions and research directions, and detailed feedback on the technical aspects of the project.
Students also engage in entrepreneurial activities, including the opportunity to interact with successful entrepreneurs and investors in class and through networking events. In addition, the students access MIT’s sophisticated facilities, such as the Microsystems Technology Laboratories – a privilege typically reserved for graduate students, thus expanding the scope of what is possible in their SuperUROP project.
In April this year, the Department also held its first undergraduate research conference, EECSCon. This off-campus one-day event was student-organized with faculty oversight. The meeting featured poster and oral presentations by undergraduate students doing UROP, SuperUROP, or other research in EECS areas, and included generous prizes for outstanding research and presentations. Seeing the quality of the work presented, as well as the excellent planning and execution of the conference, was tremendously gratifying to me.
One of my best early decisions as department head was to form the Undergraduate Student Advisory Group in EECS (USAGE), comprised of over 30 undergraduate student volunteers from across the Department. USAGE provides critical student input to the department leadership group, helping guide curriculum development and enhancements (for example, with a new medically-oriented EECS program or with entrepreneurship in EECS); improves response rates on course evaluations; develops a role for undergraduate students in faculty search; and shapes IAP activities. The final specific form of the SuperUROP program owes a lot to thoughtful input from USAGE. The Department also engaged students in the faculty search committee after input from the USAGE group. While students had met with faculty candidates in the past, the Department had never before formally requested student input into the hiring decision.
One of my highest priorities as department head is to help our undergraduates apply their talent and drive to curricular and extra-curricular initiatives in the Department, as well as to bigger societal challenges, empowering them to lead in these efforts.