Geology student

Undergraduate Summer Research Program Is Growing Strong

Dance and spirituality, creating your own study-abroad experience, jazz, paper-cutting as a cultural expression, glaciers, and air pollution and economic development were all subjects explored by undergraduate researchers with the guidance of a faculty mentor during summer 2009.

Thirty-one proposals were submitted to the Undergraduate Research Office seeking funding through the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship (USRF) Program, which awarded 20 fellowships. Each fellowship provides a student stipend of $2,500, a faculty stipend of $1,000, and up to $500 for travel, supplies, and/or equipment to support the project.

“We were not able to fund all the highly rated proposals that the reviewers considered worthy of funding,” said Jill Singer, director of the Undergraduate Research Office, professor of earth sciences, and geologist. She is also past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), a national organization that works to strengthen undergraduate research at colleges and universities across the country.

The quality of the proposals has increased since the program began in 1999, according to Singer. Each proposal is reviewed and ranked by three to four faculty members who are experienced research mentors and who teach in the school from which the proposal originates.

“About two-thirds of the awards go to returning mentors,” said Singer, “and the remainder go to new faculty members that are just starting out as mentors to undergraduates conducting research. This proportion tells us that the USRF program appeals to experienced faculty mentors, but also succeeds in attracting faculty new to the campus.”

The names of the reviewers are not released. However, if a proposal is declined, the faculty mentor has an opportunity to discuss his or her proposal with Singer, who has served as a program director at the National Science Foundation.

The Undergraduate Research Office presents an orientation for faculty mentors and students, and both faculty and students submit a progress report and a report at the end of the eight-week program.

“The information provided in the reports is valuable both for ensuring that the project is on track as well as to support efforts to document the impact of the USRF program,” said Singer. “There is a lot of interest in evaluating student learning gains resulting from undergraduate research, and Buffalo State has contributed to this, particularly because our program is open to students in all academic areas.” Buffalo State’s efforts to develop instruments and a protocol for assessing the USRF were recently published in the CUR Quarterly.

Under the mentorship of Tao Tang, associate professor of geography and planning, economics major Lei Cai traveled to Beijing to study air pollution and its sources with graduate students from Capital Normal University in Beijing. Cai, who has a minor in planning, also designed a survey to find out if people who lived close to the pollution sources had greater opportunities for jobs or business development. In addition, the survey explored peoples’ concerns about the environment and economic development. Back at Buffalo State, Cai used GIS software to analyze the data and map the spatial patterns of pollution and the survey results.

Tara Nahabetian, assistant professor of design and coordinator of the metals/jewelry program, worked with undergraduate Vincent Pontillo. Nahabetian, who has served as a USRF mentor twice before, said she really enjoys the program. “It’s a closer mentoring relationship than you have in a classroom,” she said.

Pontillo researched paper-cutting traditions and styles from several cultures, Nahabetian said. “He is using industrial processes like laser-cutting on metal and rubber to create work inspired by paper-cutting.” Nahabetian believes that giving students in the visual arts an opportunity to take part in the USRF program is a “gem” offered by Buffalo State. “Students in the arts learn how to write a proposal and complete their commitment,” she said.

Cai and Pontillo, along with 18 other students, will present their work at the 12th annual Student Research and Creativity Celebration on April 30 and May 1, 2010. “The celebration is one way Buffalo State demonstrates its commitment to research and the valuable role provided by faculty mentors,” said Singer.