Fostering undergraduate research
Winning four consecutive three-year NSF grants for the program, Professor Christos Takoudis helps promote undergraduate research with UIC’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).
With more academic institutions realizing the potential benefits of competition for research for undergraduates, the National Science Foundation’s program is growing more competitive with time, but that hasn’t hindered professors Christos Takoudis and Gregory Jursich, who direct UIC’s program, from receiving four consecutive three-year grants to promote undergraduate research.
The REU program at UIC offers a dozen students—both from UIC and around the nation—the opportunity to learn what research is all about. For ten weeks during the summer, participants work in a UIC facility assisting a UIC faculty member with his or her research project. Generally, the experience helps students figure out whether or not they want to pursue graduate school. And many of them do. “More than 80 percent of our REU participants go on to graduate school,” Takoudis said.
Takoudis has been UIC’s REU program director since its piloting as an REU supplement, where he mentored two or three students at a time on his own. With more than twenty-five years of experience leading the program—thirteen of those years at UIC College of Engineering—Takoudis has seen how colleges benefit from this kind of effort. “It increases visibility, the potential pool of graduate applicants, and the potential for additional research funding among faculty members,” he said.
He’s certainly proud of the program’s success—and keenly aware of the difficulty in winning repeated funding. “It gets much tougher for people to go for renewal because you can’t rely on your previous efforts. You have to include something new the next time,” he said. But UIC’s program is unique in several ways that have helped maintain support from the NSF. First, REU at UIC publishes more papers written by students as co-authors than most schools. “There are many REU sites out there that have practically no papers. And NSF is after research papers; they want evidence,” Takoudis said. The other unique aspect is the availability of final presentations on UIC’s REU Web site. Both help prove students’ success as a result of going through the program.
And their success comes in numerous shapes. From becoming familiar with the research experience to publishing for the first time to advancing professionally—presumably at a much better pace after REU—Takoudis has received much positive feedback from students. “It’s amazing how many good things students have gotten out of the experience over the years. To us, that is the best satisfaction more than anything else.”