An eye-opening experience: undergraduate research at UW-Platteville

Written by Jane Halpern on Mon, 12/02/2019 - 08:59 |

Walk the campus of UW-Platteville and you’ll notice a few things that set this rural state university apart; for starters, the gigantic chalk-white M which towers over the town. You’re likely to see surveying students marking chalk lines on all the available sidewalks, and slackliners balancing between trees. And if you visit the research labs and classrooms of Ottensman and Engineering Hall, you’ll see professors and students engrossed in exploration, working on problems that range from the nanomolecular to the global in scale. But one of the most unique features of UW-Platteville only becomes apparent when you step back and notice who those students are: undergraduates. Unusually within the academic community, UW-Platteville undergraduates have the opportunity to assist in research almost from the moment they arrive, building key skills and gaining real-world experience which helps them stand apart from the crowd.

“Undergraduate research opportunities help students apply what they are learning beyond the classroom and consider more options about what they can do with their lives,” said Dr. Molly Gribb, dean of the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science at UW-Platteville and a champion of the university’s unconventional approach to research. Recently, Gribb has personally donated generously towards the Undergraduate Research Assistantships Fund, a resource dedicated to supporting undergraduate researchers on campus.

“By providing stipends for students, I hope to ensure that students can choose to do a paid undergraduate student assistantship and help pay for their schooling at the same time,” said Gribb, who credits much of her own undergraduate learning to a research experience. “I had the opportunity to work for my professor in the Textile Science Department at UW-Madison. This experience opened my eyes to research and the possibility of graduate school, and I know it had an important influence on my decision to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering. I learned how to use analytical chemistry equipment, write a literature review and I attended my first research conference – activities that would not have been part of my coursework.”

Students at UW-Platteville are gaining similar experience with cutting-edge technology and formal research conventions. In Dr. Hynek Boril’s computer engineering laboratory, for example, Pioneer researchers analyze hundreds of hours of human speech using a cutting-edge GPU server with over 3,500 computational CUDA cores. The lab routinely sends their top undergraduate researchers to present in the partnering Center for Robust Speech Systems (CRSS) at The University of Texas at Dallas where some of them later continue as summer interns and later, after their graduation, as Ph.D. students.

“I was able to set up a computational GPU server in our ECE department, where students can learn how to design and run parallel experiments in the same fashion as seen in top academic and industry research labs,” said Boril, whose research focuses on the type of advanced speech recognition technology that underpins consumer technologies like Siri and Alexa. As a result, his students are uniquely well-positioned at graduation. “Having an undergraduate research experience makes you stand out from the crowd – both when planning to join industry or continue post-graduate studies,” said Boril. “Companies like to see their hires having experience in independent creative work, as that's one of the premises for becoming a successful engineer.”

Participating in faculty research also gives students the chance to engage in scholarly publication and patenting, key steps towards a career in the STEM fields. In Dr. Wei Li’s engineering physics lab, students are working to develop a new technology that would allow for the more efficient manufacture of quantum dots, a futuristic man-made nanoparticle with hundreds of potential applications in photonics and optoelectrics. “All of the previous students in [my] team, have journal or conference publications or patent invention listings as coauthors or co-inventors,” said Li. “Some students got REU or graduate school offers from prestigious institutions such as Duke University, UW-Madison, University of Arizona, University of Colorado and Oak Ridge National Lab.”

The educational benefits of authorship are clear; just ask broad field science, secondary education major Anna Drazkowski, who recently shared a prestigious award for a paper she co-authored with Dr. Yan Wu, professor of engineering physics. “It’s an amazing opportunity that not everybody in undergrad has and right here at UW-Platteville we have the opportunity to work with our professors,” reported Drazkowski, who is planning to use the pairs’ findings to inform her own teaching. “You don’t have to wait until you’re a graduate student. You have this experience right away to understand if you like it and want to continue doing it.”

Drazkowski’s valuable experience is exactly the kind of outcome Gribb hopes to encourage. “We have a number of students working with professors in EMS, but I’d like to see even more students have these impactful experiences,” she said. Reflecting on her time as an undergraduate researcher, she added, “I found the experiences I had made me better prepared for graduate school. I also feel as though my writing and communication and critical thinking skills were enhanced. Finally, it helped me see the importance of my coursework and that provided extra motivation to do well.”

With her generous donation to the Undergraduate Research Assistantships Fund, Gribb has gone a long way towards ensuring that future Pioneers will continue to reap the benefits of an early introduction to the world of research.