Creating undergraduate research opportunities for engineering students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Janis Terpenny, professor and head of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, has a passion for teaching and research.

Based on her experiences at other universities and in her former role as a program director at the National Science Foundation, Terpenny found a way to make research available to undergraduates in the industrial engineering (IE) program so they may learn more — and get excited — about graduate studies.

“We let our students experience firsthand what it’s like to work on real-world research projects,” she explained. “We team them up with a faculty supervisor and graduate students in state-of-the-art research labs and have them experience for themselves the rigors of research while completing their coursework.”

Better yet, the department provides them with some extra cash while completing the work.

And so Terpenny, along with Elena Joshi, undergraduate program coordinator and senior instructor, and Sarah Root, lecturer and adviser, launched the Marcus department’s undergraduate research program, which is now in its second semester.

Sixteen IE undergraduate students contributed to a total of 14 research projects during the inaugural semester of the program in the fall, and nine of those students continued on projects this semester.

Katie Heininger, a junior Schreyer’s Scholar, is working under the direction of assistant professor Scarlett Miller on research that focuses on using wearable devices — such as activity trackers — to analyze design team interactions and performance.

The project is funded by the Marcus department’s Entrepreneurship Fund.

“I became interested in learning more about human factors after I took Dr. Miller’s Introduction to Work Design course, and really there’s only one other IE undergraduate course in that area,” Heininger said. “Through my work with Dr. Miller, I have a much better understanding of the process that goes into a research project. It takes a lot more patience and creative problem-solving skills than I was expecting.”

Heininger is working with Hong-En Chen, a doctoral student in Miller’s Bridging Research in Innovation, Technology, and Engineering Lab ("britelab") on the project.

“This is the first time I’ve overseen an undergraduate on a project so it’s a completely different perspective than I had when I was an undergraduate,” Chen said. “It’s been challenging but fun at the same time to plan out the experiments and figure out the best way to approach the issues. It’s a lot of work but it’s nice to have Katie helping so we could both talk through how we wanted to proceed with completing the data analysis.”

Miller is a strong advocate for the undergraduate research program. She began her research career as part of a similar program while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska.

“I view undergraduate research as a vital component of a successful undergraduate engineering program, as it can be used to fuel a passion for research in our students and help open their eyes to the prospects of attending a graduate program,” she said.

“The reason I’m a faculty member today is because I participated in an undergraduate research program which opened my eyes to what research is and opened the door to graduate funding opportunities. I owe a lot of where I am today to those early experiences.”

As a result of her experiences in the britelab, Heininger is considering pursuing both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in IE, with a focus on human factors.

Kristen Meihofer, another Schreyer Scholar, is working on a project under the guidance of Uday Shanbhag, Gary and Sheila Bello Chair Professor. The project focuses on sports analytics and, in particular, men’s volleyball statistics.

Each touch of the ball during a match is recorded and the result of that touch is also documented, so the researchers are analyzing the data of each of the touches — in which zone of the court the touch was made, the result of the touch (a point, an error, a passed ball) — and plotting regressions.

The research team, which also includes IE undergraduate Brianne McFarland, is working with the Penn State men’s volleyball team on the project.

“Essentially we are trying to find trends that may not be obvious to the coaches on the sidelines so they can make better decisions,” Meihofer said. “We analyze the data, pick up on patterns and plot the regressions so that we can ultimately live-predict what is going to happen on the court. Coaches can change their game plan accordingly in order to win the point and, ultimately, the match.”

IE senior Anqi Ren is working with Terpenny’s research group on a project that looks at cybersecurity in manufacturing.

Ren and Dazhong Wu, a senior research associate in the Marcus department, are completing a literature review on the topic and summarizing the attacks and threats that have been detrimental in the manufacturing sector over time.

They are collaborating with a researcher from the College of Information Sciences and Technology to determine prevention techniques that can be used against future threats.

“Dazhong and Dr. Terpenny have high standards in whatever they do so being in that environment has helped me improve in many areas, particularly in writing scholarly papers,” Ren said. 

While not sure of her future plans before she got involved with Terpenny’s research, Ren is considering offers from a handful of schools to pursue a graduate degree in either operations research or data analytics.

For more information on the undergraduate research program in industrial engineering, visit the Marcus department website

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Last Updated April 19, 2017