Opinion: Undergraduate research is critical to the student experience

Written by Dr. Edoardo Rubino on |
Dr. Edoardo Rubino
Dr. Edoardo Rubino is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UW-Platteville.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville is a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI)—a category defined by the National Science Foundation as colleges and universities that only grant a small percentage of graduate degrees (master’s and doctoral). Therefore, these institutions' main focus is on providing their students with a high-quality education through their programs—which is, in fact, a hallmark of UW-Platteville, widely known for its strong reputation as a student-centered, teaching institution. 

However, faculty from these institutions are also called to perform tasks other than teaching. These include service to the department, college, and university as well as professional development/scholarly activities. The most prominent professional development activity is represented by undergraduate research, which is defined by the Council on Undergraduate Research as “a mentored investigation or creative inquiry conducted by undergraduates that seek to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge.” 

Undergraduate research presents benefits that extend far beyond these scholarly or artistic contributions to knowledge. Sometimes less tangible, but just as important, the benefits students gain from engaging in research can have a profound impact on their future education and career prospects. This is why it is of the utmost importance to support research opportunities at PUIs, like UW-Platteville. 

One of the most important advantages obtained by students performing undergraduate research is gaining a clear understanding of research methodologies. By being part of a research group, engineering students can indeed learn how to make plans for and set laboratory experiments, build computer simulations, and collect and present data within or outside their research group. After spending enough time on a research project to provide a significant contribution, students can disseminate the results of the research through conference presentations and journal articles, which will improve their resume and communication skills (written and oral). In addition, conference attendance can dramatically help students in expanding their network and making strong connections outside of their university or college.

In 2020, I authored a paper about optical sensors together with a student. The student presented the paper at the SPIE Optics and Photonics conference, held in San Diego, California. One of the attendants of the conference happened to be the department chair of an electro-optics engineering program and offered my student a position as a graduate research assistant in his department. 

Working on a research project, also, most of the time means working on campus, which helps students to keep their attention on their coursework and graduate on time. Students are able to build robust relationships with their faculty mentors, and this becomes especially true when students join research projects from the very beginning of their academic path. An early start also helps in building and solidifying, by the time of graduation, several skills including critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, budget and proposal development, and leadership, which are dramatically important in today’s job market, both in industry and academia. 

One of these skills in particular, leadership, is developed when students perform research for long enough to mentor, train, and guide younger fellow students. A student of mine contacted me when he was a freshman in mechanical engineering at UW-Platteville and started to work on the development of optical sensors. Seeing his commitment to research I asked him to also contribute to another project about energy harvesting with smart materials. In less than three years, he authored three conference papers and gave a research presentation, and he is currently working on a journal article which we are planning to submit by the end of 2022. These accomplishments will make his resume extremely competitive, and he has a very good chance to obtain scholarships to attend graduate school.