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Program makes science, engineering ‘real’ for students
August 11, 2015Tweet
Laura Sonnenberg had never conducted real, hard research on her own. But her summer working with sponge supercapacitors as a participant in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program in Smart Energy changed all that.
“The chemistry lab courses that you take will kind of prepare you, but this is all your own,” said Sonnenberg, a rising junior chemistry major. “You have to create your own design. You have to think about ‘Oh, this didn’t work,’ so you have to change something.”
Sonnenberg and other REU students presented their summer’s work at a final poster session for the program on July 31, in the rotunda of the Innovative Technologies Complex.
The NSF REU program has been running for 28 years; this marks the third year for the smart energy REU at Binghamton University. The program provides resources to bring students to campus during the summer to conduct research in a particular themed area where there is expertise on the campus.
About a third of the students who attended this year are from Binghamton; the rest hail from other universities. Each student receives a little over $4,000 in funding, and those who don’t already live on campus are offered free housing.
According to Wayne Jones, chair and professor of chemistry, the program makes science and engineering “real” for students.
“It’s one thing to learn the theories, learn the concepts, learn the tools. It’s something else to be able to use those tools to solve real-world problems,” said Jones. “The smart energy program at Binghamton is an example of a real-world application that they can truly engage with.”
Students worked for nine weeks on projects ranging from new solar cells and energy generation, to new approaches to batteries, to new approaches to energy efficiency and computation. They participated actively in research — each student worked with a graduate student in a faculty lab.
Students chose areas of research they were interested in — energy generation, storage or efficiency — and Jones paired them with individual faculty who have ongoing research supported by federal and private grants. Students also participated actively with other summer programs on campus, including the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program, the National Institutes of Health Bridges to the Baccalaureate program and the McNair Scholars program.
In addition, students engaged in professional development programming, covering topics like applying to graduate school, time management, program management, career pathways in science, scholarship opportunities and more.
Sonnenberg was grateful to participate in the program, as she believes learning about energy is important to the future.
“We can’t go back from here. We can’t ignore technology. We can either improve or ignore it, so I felt like this was a good field to go into. And I really like it,” she said. “It’s so interesting, all of the things you can do with it.”
Working in the lab was a rewarding experience for Sonnenberg as well.
“We have a decent sized lab group of around 15 to 20 people,” she said. “It’s really fun, working with them, bouncing ideas off of each other, talking about what we’re doing and getting more ideas for our future research.”
Aurelie Niyongabo, a rising junior biochemistry major, wants to go to graduate school to study concepts related to both biology and chemistry. The research she conducted for the NSF REU on electrospinning, a process in which an electrical charge is used to draw nanofibers from a liquid, offered her a chance to study something new.
“I really like working on this because it’s something new that I haven’t experienced,” Niyongabo said. “I’m more interested in organic stuff like biochemistry, and this is an inorganic material science. This is a new thing that I’m learning, and I really enjoy it.”
On top of providing students a wealth of new experiences, more than 90 percent of students in the program go on to graduate school. “One hundred percent of them say that it was one of the most important experiences they had for increasing their interest, getting involved with a STEM career and getting involved with research,” said Jones.
Sonnenberg hopes to be one of those success stories, and the program gave her just the opportunity she was looking for.
“My plan is to go to grad school for a PhD in chemistry so this is exactly what I want to do.”