372545 REU Experience at the University of Alabama: The Benefits of Engaging Students in the Experimental and Computational Aspects of Research Projects
We are currently in our second round of funding for an NSF REU Site program at The University of Alabama. Our first program was driven by an intellectual focus on developing more environmentally-benign "clean" energy technologies. In order to engage and train the next generation of scientists and engineers in providing clean energy solutions, we assembled a set of projects that addressed various technical aspects of future energy solutions. These projects included: technologies for oil spill cleanup; ionic liquids for CO2 separation and capture; CO2 emissions monitoring from sequestration formations; fuel cell, supercapacitor, and electrochemistry modeling; biogas and biodiesel production; energy storage in clathrate hydrates; and environmental catalysis. While these research projects spanned a number of different technical areas, the projects that involved both experimental and computational components resulted in elevated scholarly productivity. In addition, the combined experimental and computational perspectives enriched the knowledge-base of the students (as judged by student feedback responses). In order to leverage the benefits observed from our first REU Site program (during three years of operation), we expanded the computational aspects of our projects by refocusing our theme to: “Leveraging Computational Tools for Enhancing Engineering Innovation”. This program primarily involves faculty members from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, but it also includes faculty from Aerospace Engineering and Metallurgical and Materials Engineering. Each project has a clearly defined hypothesis, and the hands-on research experiences involve a varying balance of experiments and computational work across a variety of cross-cutting topics including 3-D printing, molecular/materials design, coding/simulations and biology.
Within the context of our previous REU Site and our more recent expansion of computational projects, we will highlight some of the primary challenges and successes that we have experienced. In particular, we will outline our strategy for: (a) initial student recruitment; (b) successfully acclimating students to campus and their research environments; (c) unconventional seminars for professional development; and (d) long-term student mentoring.