Student work in lab

Understanding the Benefits of Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate research opportunities can open doors for students as they take the next step in their journey. For students considering graduate school, a research experience can help make that decision by giving the student a taste of what’s to come. Students who have never even considered graduate school might realize they have an affinity for research. Even students who don’t plan to continue with a graduate education, can gain a huge edge in the job market from having a experience with research. As students begin to enter the job market, they are realizing that employers are looking for potential employees who have real-world experience and an understanding of the research process. Research gives students a greater understanding of the concepts and ideas they study as part of their coursework and working through an individual research project forces students to look for answers beyond their textbooks and navigate through issues, developing essential critical thinking skills.

"The opportunity to participate in undergraduate research at the EMS Energy Institute was a way for me to apply the knowledge I learned in my classes to real world problems. My research experience taught me more about designing and building experimental set-ups, data collection, and data analysis than any of my classes because instead of following a set of prescribed lab procedures, I was challenged to collaborate with my colleagues and solve open ended problems. My mentors taught me a wide range of skills from how to approach research problems, to giving presentations to collaborators, to using Swagelok fittings. I was very fortunate to be able to publish a first author paper on my work, as well as present my project at two technical conferences. My work at the Institute motivated me to seek new research opportunities and to apply to graduate school."
-- Laura Bradley (‘11) is a PhD candiate at the University of Southern California.

Although the majority of the students working at the Institute are graduate students, we take every opportunity to support undergraduate research for interested students. We offer research experience for wage payroll students, students enrolled in the senior research-focused Energy and Geo-Environmental Engineering (EGEE) 494 or the industrial-oriented capstone energy design course (EGEE) 464 as well as for students completing independent coursework or honors thesis projects. The students that work at the Institute benefit from working along side faculty, research staff, and graduate students. They receive guidance and training, but are pushed to think for themselves through processes and outcomes.

Participating in research projects as an undergraduate student helped me to develop many skills that are difficult to attain through regular classwork. EMS Energy Institute research projects were an opportunity to work with a team of students to design, construct and operate experimental systems under the guidance of talented researchers.”
-- Derek Hall (‘12) is a graduate student working at the EMS Energy Institute.

Educating Students on Research Opportunities

As part of our outreach and recruitment efforts, the EMS Energy Institute participates each year in the Earth and Mineral Sciences Exposition (EMEX). Sharon Falcone Miller, director of the Office of Student Development at the Institute, coordinates the effort. She is usually joined by one or two students currently working on research projects at the Institute who are able to discuss their work and answer questions on their experience. Dr. Miller spends the day talking to attendees and providing an overview of the opportunities available through the Institute in one of our nine research focus areas with the goal of educating potential students on the benefits of having a research Institute available to them. Many students are unaware of the option to complete research as an undergraduate and how that experience can benefit them in the future.

“Unlike the normal classroom atmosphere where a certain curriculum must be followed, the senior research project is chosen by each student to focus on their strengths in addition to interest in the field of engineering. [Offering] a choice [for students] to research a topic that the student has fully chosen on their own, creates a learning experience unlike others. The experience teaches long term self-reliance and time management which complement the skills required in the working field of today’s industries.
-- Ken Meagher’s (‘13) project examined the properties of the coal-derived jet fuel JP 900 as they relate to transportation and miliary diesel fuel needs. He plans to work in combustion analysis in the transportation industry.

EMEX is the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences annual open house. All high school students, current Penn State students, and transfer students who are considering an EMS major are invited to attend. Faculty, staff, students, and alumni answer questions and talk to attendees about EMS majors, curriculum requirements, career opportunities, student life, and special features of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. This year the event was held on March 16 and over 425 prospective students and their families participated.

“Participating in a research project as part of my undergraduate degree helped me connect with other students and professors who share similar interests. The challenges associated with working on a project helped further develop skills in solving complex problems.
--Eric LaRow is an undergradaute student in the Penn State Schreyer Honors College. His research at the Institute focuses on characterizing and improving the performance of a CuCl electrolyzer as part of the CuCl hybrid thermochemical cycle.

Information on Opportunities

For more information on student research or the opportunities available through the EMS Energy Institute, visit the Office of Student Development website, www.energy.psu.edu/osd/index.html, or contact Sharon Falcone Miller, sfm1@psu.edu.

“I was able to learn more about a topic that was directly relevant to my interests, and I had the freedom to take an in-depth look at something that I am passionate about. It wasn’t always easy along the way, and there was a good deal of problem solving and troubleshooting I had to do to get things to work; sometimes a reaction would go wrong, or scheduling proved more difficult than I expected. In the end, I was able to work things out and accomplish what I set out to do. I learned how to adapt and shape my project into something meaningful, something that I’m proud of. I have no doubt the experience will be valuable to me when I begin to work in the alternative energy field.”
-- Karl Koerner (’13) completed a project on the economic viability of converting waste fryer oil into biodiesel in the State College area. He plans to work in the alternative energy field and eventually pursue an advanced degree in order to teach.