From Lectures to Labs

Integrating education and research to create well-rounded students

Marty Ridens enrolled in the UNM School of Engineering (SOE) to get "a piece of paper." What he got was a passion for research and a new career path. Five years ago, Ridens was on the East Coast pursuing a successful career in semiconductor engineering when he was downsized after 9/11. Though Ridens had years of experience, his employer had to let him go because he was a "non-degree engineer," meaning he didn't hold a college degree in his field. Ridens had tried. He'd enrolled in several universities, including UNM, but never finished his degree. After returning to Albuquerque in 2004, Ridens reenrolled in the School of Engineering with a plan to finally earn his "piece of paper" and then return to the corporate world. The school's emphasis on integrating education and research changed his plans.

Enter Terran Lane, assistant professor of computer science. Lane is an investigator on a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) to study embedded machine learning. UNM is collaborating with a team at the University of Oklahoma on the project. Lane's portion of the study focuses on teaching autonomous agents - like robots - to interact with their environments. While the REU has specific research goals, the key objective is to expose more undergraduates to research in hopes they'll want to pursue research as a career. "Making an opportunity like this available to undergraduates is important," says Lane. "Too often there's a wall between graduate and undergraduate education. Programs like this REU bridge that wall. And I'm happy to have good, smart people doing high quality research whether they're graduate or undergraduate students."

To that end, Lane visited undergraduate classes last fall to recruit research assistants. The opportunity piqued Ridens' interest so he applied and got the job. "I thought I might be able to do research in the future but having this opportunity as an undergraduate lays the groundwork for my future," says Ridens. "I'm learning things that I wouldn't learn in the classroom so it's been the best of both worlds." Ridens works about 10 hours a week on the REU, creating simulations and running experiments to determine if certain algorithms work. Like many students, Marty Ridens found that his research experience shaped his plans for the future. Now a junior working on a double degree in computer science and mathematics, Ridens plans to attend graduate school to study computer science with a focus on reinforcement learning. He’s leaning towards a research career when he graduates.

Real World Experience

The NSF-REU is just one of the many ways that the UNM School of Engineering integrates education and research for undergraduates. Since becoming a research university almost 20 years ago, research has become an integral part of the undergraduate program through coursework and lab experiences. "It's crucial for students to get outside the classroom, to work in teams with engineers and other professionals, and to create new engineering knowledge," says Associate Dean of Research Kevin Malloy.

With $25 million in sponsored research, the SOE has plenty of opportunities for undergraduates to participate outside the classroom. Students can choose from honors programs, research assistantships with faculty, and research collaborations with industry and the government.

Tricia Padilla, who graduated in May with a degree in chemical engineering, received plenty of real world experience as she pursued her honors thesis. Padilla spent about ten hours a week on research with Gabriel Lopez, professor of chemical engineering and chemistry. Their research, which is part of the Los Alamos Joint Science Technology Laboratory Project between UNM and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), focused on separating proteins from mixtures using electrochromatography. The process would allow researchers to extract and analyze proteins from a mixture such as blood or from cells like cancer or bacteria cells. Working in a lab in the Electrical and Computer Engineering building, Padilla placed dye molecules on a specially treated chip where the proteins moved at different speeds to create distinct bands. Padilla then sent the chips on to LANL where scientists continue to analyze and identify the different proteins. The research could lead to a more effective protein separation process that would be useful in basic biological research, medicine, and the pharmaceutical industry.

"Tricia is very smart and very motivated. I felt that tangible experience in our research group could really help her," says Lopez. "It's clear that she has had the opportunity to hone her written and communication skills as well as working effectively in a goal-oriented team environment."

Because of her consistent work and contribution to the research, Padilla's name will be included on a published paper. "Working in the lab has been a great experience. Not only have I learned different lab protocols, I now have a clearer understanding of laboratory tools and construction of prototype devices," explains Padilla. "I obtained hands-on experience to prepare for future research and industrial work." She adds that she learned management skills as well. "Working with Dr. Lopez and his group allowed me to gain different leadership skills by his example of supervision of people. It was insightful to see how he worked with and managed people."

PREP Program

Lopez and Lane also work with students participating in the Postbaccalaureate Research and Education Program (PREP). The bridging program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, offers recent UNM graduates with bachelor's degrees in science, math, and engineering the opportunity to spend a year conducting research and honing their skills before entering graduate school. Students work full time in a research lab and take courses at UNM and short courses offered by PREP. At the end of the year, PREP students are better prepared for graduate school and research careers. "PREP has been particularly successful in allowing students that wouldn't have gone on to graduate school to consider grad school and research as options," says Lopez.

Participating in PROFOUND

April 13, 2006 was a bright spring morning and the Student Union Building ballroom was crowded with people admiring research poster displays designed by undergraduate students from across campus. Tri Trinh, a senior in nuclear engineering, stood confidently by his poster entitled "Seismic Vibration Effects on Criticality in a Radioactive Waste Facility." A group of professors walked up and began to question Trinh about his work.

The students, professors, and industry professionals were participating in the annual UNM Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by the Program of Research Opportunities For Undergraduates (PROFOUND). The university-wide service connects students with research opportunities on campus throughout the year. During PROFOUND's spring symposium, students present their research for judging and some receive monetary awards for their work.

Trinh's research was a statistical analysis of the effects of an earthquake on the stability of radioactive waste containers in a storage facility. He ran hundreds of scenarios through a computer program to evaluate how the containers would move. Trinh conducted his research as an independent study course with Professor Anil Prinja, who encouraged Trinh to participate in the symposium to gain presentation experience.

Trinh knows his research inside and out but participating in PROFOUND offered new challenges. "I think it went well but they asked some tough questions," says Trinh. "Participating in PROFOUND was really worthwhile because it helped me develop presentation skills for the future." Trinh received a research stipend from the symposium. He'll have even more practice presenting and sharing his research soon, as he plans to submit his research at an upcoming American Nuclear Society conference.

Taking Flight

Design failures and triumphs, successful flights and crashes, financial and administrative challenges - the Lobo Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Team experienced it all while preparing for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle International's (AUVSI) Aerial Robotic Competition. Starting last fall, a team of engineering students designed and built the Lobo UAV, a helicopter outfitted with electronics so that it can fly autonomously. The UNM team attended the competition in Ft. Benning, Georgia in late July along with teams from around the nation and other countries. At the competition, the UAVs had to fly through a three-kilometer course using only onboard sensors and electronics for control and navigation.

Some UNM UAV students worked on the project for course credit, others for independent study. A few students participated simply to gain additional experience applying what they've learned in class. That experience extended well beyond researching parts, building sensors, and making test flights. The students dealt with financial setbacks, red tape, and the challenges of teamwork. "This project has helped a lot of students get extra experience on the technical side of things," says team leader Michael Anderson, who graduated in May with a degree in electrical engineering. "For project coordinators like me, it gave us an idea of what to expect when we get into the workforce and start working in teams."

And that's exactly the type of experience that the SOE hopes to provide, says Malloy. "Real world situations involve people, uncertainty, and many more factors than simply plugging the right numbers into an equation."