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A Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research and Development Program to Enhance Education and Diversity in Science and Engineering

Geoffrey D. Bothun1, Leonard C. Uitenham2, Joseph M. DeSimone3, Everett I. Baucom3, and Darlene K. Taylor4. (1) Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Rhode Island, 205 Crawford Hall, Kingston, RI 02881, (2) Department of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, North Carolina A&T State University, 618 McNair Hall, Greensboro, NC 27411, (3) Department of Chemistry, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Box # 3290, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, (4) Department of Chemistry, North Carolina Central University, 210 Hubbard Building, Durham, NC 27707

A multidisciplinary undergraduate research and development program, EXPERT (EXperimental Program for Education through Research & Training), was recently initiated by the NSF Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes (CERSP, www.nsfstc.unc.edu) and the NSF Discovery Corps Fellowship (DCF) program in the Department of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), a Historically Black University. Using green engineering and sustainability as unifying themes, EXPERT was designed to enhance the undergraduate experience and increase the number of underrepresented students in science and engineering, particularly at the graduate level. Drawing from resources provided by CERSP, the DCF program, and NC A&T has yielded a unique training opportunity that combines research experience, personal/professional development, and exposure in science and engineering fields. This contribution describes the first two years of the EXPERT program with the aim of providing an outline for implementing similar undergraduate programs at other institutions.

The goals of EXPERT embody key areas of national priority: (i) diversity in science and engineering, (ii) sustainable manufacturing, (iii) community outreach, and (iv) technical training. Students at all levels participate in professional development through specialized workshops and seminars. Topics have included technical communication, collaboration, leadership, and entrepreneurship – skills not typically incorporated within coursework. Research projects are assigned to juniors and seniors who are mentored by NC A&T faculty. These projects frequently involve liquid or supercritical carbon dioxide as a benign, recyclable, and alternative solvent for chemical and materials processing. Measuring outcomes, determining if goals are met, and providing a framework for improvement and institutionalization are critical to the success and impact of EXPERT; therefore, an independent evaluator specializing in educational programs was commissioned to critique the program.

An objective of EXPERT is to recruit freshman science and engineering majors (specifically chemical engineering) and retain them until graduation. Twenty-two students were supported by EXPERT in 04-05 (23% juniors and seniors) and twenty-four participated in 05-06 (50% juniors and seniors), with most majoring in chemical engineering. Research projects have included membrane separations, catalysis, carbon dioxide sequestration, and biodegradable polymers, which have yielded more than six student presentations as primary or coauthors. Students have also received K-12 outreach training and performed three local activities to promote science/engineering and sustainability. To compliment EXPERT, which operates during the academic year, strong emphasis is given to helping students identify and obtain summer research and internship positions. Nearly all EXPERT students have had “meaningful” summer experiences. Overall, the partnership formed by CERSP, DCF, and NC A&T has been successful in providing a unique development opportunity for underrepresented students.

Web Page: www.nsfstc.unc.edu/EXPERT/index.htm