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Thoughts on Undergraduate Engineering Research

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The topic of "undergraduate research" is much discussed today. Speaking particularly to engineering education, I wonder if we all have the same understanding of the term "research." I would like to hear from other folks just what they think is meant by the term "undergraduate engineering research." What does it include/exclude? Is it the discovery of new concepts? Is it the solution of an extended engineering design problem? Is it particularly the study of a phenomena or design problem previously unfamiliar to the student?

What do we mean when we talk about "undergraduate engineering research"?
 
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My suspicion is that its a practical problem not yet solved by the group you're working for that may require some supervision and that will be later used in a larger project.

In other words, it won't be totally novel, it won't be groundbreaking but it will be within the means of an undergrad to complete with some mentorship and familiarity with the tools of the trade.
 

Dr. Courtney

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The topic of "undergraduate research" is much discussed today. Speaking particularly to engineering education, I wonder if we all have the same understanding of the term "research." I would like to hear from other folks just what they think is meant by the term "undergraduate engineering research." What does it include/exclude? Is it the discovery of new concepts? Is it the solution of an extended engineering design problem? Is it particularly the study of a phenomena or design problem previously unfamiliar to the student?

What do we mean when we talk about "undergraduate engineering research"?
When I lead a STEM research program at the Air Force Academy, we took a broad view. The science, math, and engineering faculty who were part of the program agreed that strict categorization as "engineering", "science", or "math" was less important than whether research projects were sufficiently rigorous and challenging for the level of students completing them. Though it was recognized that engineering projects were more likely to have design goals and science projects were more likely to answer a specific question about how nature works. But a lot of projects straddled the line.

Since we had a focus on military relevance, one question that often arose was, "Does this military tool do what it is supposed to do, and how can it be improved?" There's actually lots of good engineering lessons in evaluating whether products meet their specs, how they fail, and how they can be improved. These kinds of projects can be both interesting and novel, because there are so many products out there where rigorous evaluations are lacking.

Our STEM research program valued "interesting and novel" highly in our approach to undergrad research. It's too easy to be "novel" without being interesting and to be "interesting" without being novel. If the answer to an engineering question can be found in 15 minutes of Google searching, then it was not sufficiently novel for our program.
 
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We have had two thoughtful and insightful comments from jdishrfru and Dr. Courtney. Thank you for these. Surely there are other comments out there?
 

DEvens

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What it should mean, and what it actually means, can diverge. Folks involved should be alert that it does not become "free labor for the prof." For example, if the undergrad gets put to work doing essentially menial tasks like cleaning stuff and putting equipment back in storage, it's probably not optimal.
 
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Some corporate internships are like this. Cheap labor to handle the summertime system testing cycle of a product to be released in the fall.

However, some interns get lucky and placed on a development team and their internship leads to guaranteed full time employment provided they don't do dumb things.

One intern I knew would create rubber band balls out of the freely available paper, pencils and rubberbands while doing system test. This didn't reflect well for future employment. Bottom-line wait until you get hired full time to create your masterpiece.

Another intern I met had come up with a creative solution to a problem we had which resulted in his name on a patent and offer for full time work. Great start to a career in software engineering. The patent even gave him a boost to a good job in any high tech software company.
 
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I don't think internships or co-op are very much related to "undergraduate research." My impression is that "undergraduate research" (whatever it is) is something done on campus, and usually results in a co-author position on a paper. I'm just puzzled as to what sorts of "research" is within the scope of most undergraduates?
 
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Our university has a program called the freshman initiative where freshman get to work on projects under profs some of which are sponsored by private companies.


This can give you an idea of the kinds of things a student might do for research.
 
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I did look briefly at that material, particularly a page titled "How It Works," and I'm left wondering, can a student who cannot draw a free body diagram contribute meaningfully to an autonomous robot? I'd like to know how.
 
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What does drawing a freebody diagram have to do with robot design?

One they should have learned it in highschool physics and even if they didn't there would probably someone on the team that could handle that piece.

Its like saying the person can't be a programmer because they can't draw a flowchart.

People aren't limited by the things they can't do only by the belief that they can't do it.
 
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@jedishrfu , OK, fine, if you think so.

I'm sure you have heard the old story about a group of monkeys with typewriters eventually typing out all the works of Shakespeare.

When I think back to my own undergraduate days (long, long ago), I think I would have recognized such a task as an utter waste of time. I would have known that I did not know what I was doing, and that I was utterly unqualified to deal with the task. I recall part of my own senior design project that involved designing an aircraft to fly in the Martian atmosphere - a whole lot of similitude and finger-crosssing. Even that near graduation, I knew that I, and none of my team, had much to work with for such a task.

Its like saying the person can't be a programmer because they can't draw a flowchart.
The detailed knowledge of standard flow chart symbols is clearly irrelevant. The knowledge of how to systematically reach a numerical solution is something I do in fact think is essential for any significant programming task. Do you know many programmers who have no clue about flow charts?

What does drawing a freebody diagram have to do with robot design
To come back to your initial point, if the students cannot draw an FBD, how will they size the members? If they can't draw an FBD, how will they write the equations of motion? ls this really the cart before the horse?
 

russ_watters

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We have had two thoughtful and insightful comments from jdishrfru and Dr. Courtney. Thank you for these. Surely there are other comments out there?
Where did you see the term used and what description was given there?
 
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@russ_watters : When you ask about "the term" I presume you are referring to the term "undergraduate engineering research." With, or without the word "engineering" included, this term appears in almost every academic job announcement today. It seems to be the buzz word de-jour. I don't think I have ever seen it defined or described. It is treated as through everyone simply knows what it means. It is because I have difficulty attaching meaning to it that I raised the question.
 

russ_watters

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@russ_watters : When you ask about "the term" I presume you are referring to the term "undergraduate engineering research." With, or without the word "engineering" included, this term appears in almost every academic job announcement today. It seems to be the buzz word de-jour. I don't think I have ever seen it defined or described. It is treated as through everyone simply knows what it means. It is because I have difficulty attaching meaning to it that I raised the question.
An example would still help. Context may point to the answer. Here you said "academic job", which combined with "undergrad engineering research" sounds like an oxymoron. I initially thought you were referring to the name of a course.

The word "research" has two related meanings. One is a discovery process for new ideas and the other is an investigation and learning/compiling of existing ideas. Engineers generally do the latter. I would think if the context implies the former, it is probably being used as an odd substitute for "design".

But again, without seeing the specific examples that led to this question, I can only guess which you are seeing.
 
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@jedishrfu , OK, fine, if you think so.

I'm sure you have heard the old story about a group of monkeys with typewriters eventually typing out all the works of Shakespeare.

When I think back to my own undergraduate days (long, long ago), I think I would have recognized such a task as an utter waste of time. I would have known that I did not know what I was doing, and that I was utterly unqualified to deal with the task. I recall part of my own senior design project that involved designing an aircraft to fly in the Martian atmosphere - a whole lot of similitude and finger-crosssing. Even that near graduation, I knew that I, and none of my team, had much to work with for such a task.



The detailed knowledge of standard flow chart symbols is clearly irrelevant. The knowledge of how to systematically reach a numerical solution is something I do in fact think is essential for any significant programming task. Do you know many programmers who have no clue about flow charts?



To come back to your initial point, if the students cannot draw an FBD, how will they size the members? If they can't draw an FBD, how will they write the equations of motion? ls this really the cart before the horse?
You have a very narrow view of robotics. There are many things a student can do on the project that don't involve using Free Body Diagrams. The general notion behind undergrad research initiatives is to get the student interested and hooked on the idea that they can do this. I t will encourage them to learn more.

Most of our answers here have been assuming you are an undergrad interested in this direction but now I see you're looking for a different type of answer.

I can tell you that we sponsor talented high schoolers in doing undergrad research and they come in with little to no knowledge of the tasks or tools we use. They learn on the fly and get a taste of research that hopefully is positive enough for them to continue in the same direction. Some projects require them to use MATLAB and no math beyond Calculus allowing numerical methods to handle the integrations.

In the end though we are all monkeys typing on keyboards so there's nothing new here. What did Shakespeare say... A Rose by any other noun ah name ...
 
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@russ_watters: Let me quote some material from the site that jedishrfu suggested. This from a program called the FRESHMAN Research Initiative at UT-Austin.

Can intelligent robots effectively coordinate to aid humans?

The goal of this stream is to create a system of fully autonomous robots inside the new Gates complex to aid people inside the building. Students will learn about and contribute to cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Students in the Autonomous Intelligent Robotics stream are designing software for a system of robots that will exist within the new Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex. The stream's goal is to enable robots, and associated software agents, to interact with building visitors and residents.

The stream is a successor to the stream called Autonomous Vehicles Driving in Traffic, which was motivated by the DARPA Urban Challenge. In Fall 2007, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held the Urban Challenge, a street race between fully autonomous vehicles. Unlike previous challenges, the Urban Challenge vehicles had to follow the California laws for driving, including properly handling traffic. UT undergraduate students in Spring 2007 wrote the software to pass the first two levels of tests for the Urban Challenge. As a result, the Austin Robot Technology/UT vehicle participated in the National Qualifying Event. After the qualification tests, only 11 of the original 83 teams were chosen to be in the final race. The UT student programmed vehicle made the top 21 teams, but not the top 11.

Now, FRI students are working on a different autonomous robotics challenge, namely the multi-robot interactive system described above. Topics include indoor navigation, wifi localization, human interaction, activity recognition, multi-robot coordination, and many others.

This is a large programming project in which students experience many CS ideas that they can learn in detail as juniors or seniors in the Department of Computer Science. These include: software engineering, threads, message passing, distributed computing, real-time systems, and AI algorithms. Additionally, students with engineering backgrounds can apply control theory and other engineering principles to the design and control of the robots. Students also learn about, and often contribute to, cutting-edge research in robotics and autonomous agents. (end of quote)

This is for FRESHMEN, straight out of high school. They have not completed freshman physics, chemistry, or first semester calculus. From reading the web site, it sounds like this is housed in a College of Science rather than a College of Engineering, but the idea is similar either way.

Here you said "academic job", which combined with "undergrad engineering research" sounds like an oxymoron.
You asked for an example of where the terms is used. I cited academic job advertisements as an example because support and participation in "undergraduate research" is often a part of the job description.

I would think if the context implies the former, it is probably being used as an odd substitute for "design".
You may very well be correct in this. Some 40 years ago, "design" was the big buzz word, particularly with ABET. Today, I don't hear/read much about "design" but I am constantly reading about "undergraduate research." I don't think that the nature of actual engineering has changed significantly; it is still primarily about design, about making decisions and choices to create a product or solve a problem. The focus on "research" concerns me because, in my experience, most engineers do very little "research" as I've understood it. They use existing knowledge to solve problems.
 
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Your Mars glider reminded me of the NOVA show on Colditz Castle where POWs built a working glider in the roof of the castle in the hopes of a few escaping to freedom:


Also Veritaseum did a short video on the future Mars drone:

 
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Most of our answers here have been assuming you are an undergrad interested in this direction but now I see you're looking for a different type of answer.
I'm sorry if I mislead you. I would have thought it was clear from my name that I'm not an undergraduate (I don't know of many undergraduates who use the title Dr.) Just to clarify, I am a long retired Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the University of Wisconsin system with a continuing interest and concern for engineering education. What I read and see suggests to me that much of it is going down a path that will produce very mediocre graduates. The reason I initiated this thread was to see what various folks might think is the meaning and intent of the undefined term "undergraduate engineering research."
 
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That is true except on the internet all bets are off. People looking at my portmanteau of a name may be somewhat confused too but it holds my interests in star wars and chinese martial arts.

Also your summation of the changes in education are probably true too. I remember when calculators took over from slide rules. My friend and I went into a physics lab and saw some freshman doing a voltage calculation. The expected answer was 1.5v but he got some ridiculously high number and when we asked how e got he replied that's what the calculator said so we said okay carry on.

There's a movie that makes fun of this attitude too called Idiocracy:


You have to realize that things change and that education must include new things and discard others. In my fathers day, spherical trigonometry was taught to undergrads. In my day, it became a footnote in Calculus and now the Trigonometry of my time has become Algebra II no longer even a full course.
 

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