Graduate student paper on research experience for undergraduates wins ASEE award

July 17, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of Penn State faculty and graduate student authors was awarded the 2018 Best Student Paper Award from the Graduate Studies Division (GSD) of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) at the GSD’s business meeting June 26.

The award-winning paper on the Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program is titled “Lessons Learned from a Chemical Engineering REU: The Importance of Training Graduate Students Who Are Supervising REU Students.”

Authors of the paper include lead author Joseph Tise, doctoral candidate in educational psychology; Kirsten Hochstedt, graduate assistant for Penn State Student Affairs Research and Assessment; Sarah Zappe, associate research professor and director of assessment and instructional support in the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education; Esther Gomez, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, College of Engineering; and Manish Kumar, associate professor of chemical engineering, College of Engineering.

Gomez and Kumar are co-directors of the Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering REU program focused on the “Integration of Biology and Materials in Chemical Engineering.” The REU program is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The paper focuses on graduate students who mentor undergraduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering’s REU program. The program consists of undergraduate students from a variety of institutions visiting Penn State to spend ten-weeks working in a lab with a faculty member, graduate students and a research team. The REU students also participate in a series of workshops designed to improve professional skills.

Over the past several years, the Leonhard Center worked with Kumar and Gomez on assessing the REU program. In the summer of 2017, Tise and Hochstedt were hired to help with data collection and analysis for the assessment. This led to some interesting findings, according to Zappe.

“We realized that the REU students typically work most closely with graduate students or post-docs in the lab, rather than with the lead faculty member,” Zappe said. “Some of the graduate students have not taught before and may have never mentored nor supervised anyone.”

The discovery of the graduate students’ intensive role in the REU program led to the authorship of the paper, Zappe said. The authors examined the different strategies these graduate students used to supervise REU students and how the graduate students’ mentoring experience impacted their confidence as researchers, leaders, and mentors. 

During the authors’ research, Tise said that they discovered a surprising benefit for graduate students in the REU program.

“Multiple graduate students reported that they had learned a lot from their REU students, and not just about being a mentor,” Tise said. “They actually learned more about their own research topic just by mentoring an REU student.”

Tise said that the paper’s most important findings were related to improving mentoring by graduate students, particularly regarding how to engage students and deal with interpersonal challenges (e.g. time management), and the need to improve understanding of pedagogical principals.

The paper offered a solution to these issues that was put into practice last year: implementing a pre-REU training program for the graduate student mentors.

“This training addresses things like pedagogical best practices, how to motivate students, time management, and preparing the mentor to give up some control of their projects to the students,” Tise said.

The award-winning paper does not mark the conclusion of research into the REU program, Zappe noted.

“We’re launching some additional research studies this year in the Department of Chemical Engineering REU that will help us better understand the interactions that REU students have in the lab with the graduate students and the faculty members,” Zappe said. 

Last Updated July 18, 2018