“To make research experiences accessible, you need to get rid of as many barriers as you can, and being remote makes it easier."
Dr. Tanya Faltens
NCN, Purdue University
By Claire Stirm
The Network for Computational Nanotechnology Undergraduate Research Experience (NCN URE), based at Purdue University, is a summer program that provides students an opportunity to work on research projects. Students in this program receive training on building nanoHUB simulation tools, such as learning how to develop tools with Jupyter Notebooks, while being paid for their effort as interns. Students also attend workshops focused on developing other skills such as science communication. Students then apply these new skills by contributing their first simulation tool to nanoHUB.org, a science gateway for interactive simulation tools that enable research and teaching across nanotechnology domains. Dr. Tanya Faltens, the Educational Content Creation Manager for NCN, leads this program and pairs students with a faculty advisor and mentors to help with day-to-day guidance.
What is unique about the NCN URE program is that Dr. Faltens and the nanoHUB team reach beyond four-year university programs and care about helping students from community colleges or two-year programs. The program provides these students with research experience and increases their opportunities for and interest in pursuing a career in academia. In recent years, more students attend the program remotely and only come to the onsite program at Purdue for the last week to present a poster about their work and meet their fellow students.
A pivot took place in 2020 due to COVID-19. Dr. Faltens and the nanoHUB team adapted the program to be conducted fully online, but this wasn't the only change. The nanoHUB leadership team saw an opportunity to support faculty members transitioning their curriculum to remote instruction. In an interview with Dr. Faltens, she shared, "We know faculty need online material, but it is tough to put it together." In addition to running a smaller research-focused URE, the NCN team launched a new Undergraduate Computational Education Experience (UCEE) summer program. Faculty submitted proposals sharing their need to create educational content using nanoHUB tools for their fall classes. Eleven students attended the online NCN URE and UCEE programs and were able to help build virtual labs and interactive simulation tools for faculty members.
One of the key drivers for the program’s changes is to engage students at two-year colleges. Hae Ji Kwon was one of the students participating in the NCN URE / UCEE program and a student at Ivy Tech Community College. Hae Ji felt the program was “a wonderful, hands-on experience that was eye opening.” Hae Ji worked with Dr. David Ely, the Department Chair of the School of Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering, and Applied Sciences at Ivy Tech Community College, to develop a Jupyter Notebook using Python. Hae Ji shared that one difficulty of being in an online program is that you can’t go ask for help in an easy manner. While there were frequent meetings and sessions with her advisor to work through problems she was facing, it was still a challenge. This didn’t deter Hae Ji’s drive. She found her online research skills enhanced by conducting her own problem solving via online resources and improved her time-management skills. This experience improved Hae Ji’s confidence in using Python and Jupyter Notebooks. Hae Ji transferred over the summer to Purdue University and started her first year in engineering this fall. “Prior to the program, I had an idea that I wanted to maybe go to graduate school. Through the program, I was able to talk to professors, grad students, and industry professionals. The program helped me understand what I wanted to do with my life, pursuing grad school and a Ph.D.”
Anna Leichty is a student at Ivy Tech and also heard about this opportunity from Dr. David Ely, who is her academic advisor, “This was my first internship, and it was online,” says Anna. “They did it very well. We got to know each other even though it was online.” Anna worked with Dr. Ale Strachan, a Professor of Materials Engineering at Purdue University, to create homework assignments for first year engineering students. Anna enjoyed the experience and also found the science communication workshop extremely helpful as it helped her prepare for the virtual poster presentation at the end of the summer. Anna recommends that students go ahead and apply if they are interested in this summer program. Anna shared that while she has decided not to pursue education development as a career path, she appreciated the opportunity to explore this career path and looks forward to exploring other choices in the future.
Cindy Nguyen found the 2020 NCN UCEE program to be very impactful. A Senior Undergraduate Data Science student at Florida Polytechnic University, Cindy worked with her mentor, Dr. Rei Sanchez-Arias, an assistant professor of Data Science and Business Analytics at Florida Polytechnic University. “Due to COVID, it was very difficult to find internships,” says Cindy. She goes on to say, “I reached out to Dr. Sanchez to see if he knew of any opportunities and he referred me to this program.” Cindy’s experience started with a crash course of the materials and Jupyter, yet in the middle of the project she felt the reward of all her hard work. “I was imagining if I was another student reading the materials, and I put all my effort into gathering the entire picture so it made sense,” says Cindy. Together, Cindy and Dr. Sanchez published a Jupyter Notebook teaching root-finding methods and numerical optimization techniques with science, engineering, and data analysis applications. Cindy plans to attend graduate school in the future and is still considering choosing a track in technology or healthcare. You can hear more from Cindy about her experience by reading “Data science student creates nanoHUB tool to enhance remote education.”
The NCN URE / UCEE program provides students research and education experiences. “I would recommend that every student apply if they are interested,” says Hae Ji. She goes on to say, “Dr. Faltens and others help guide us during the program. It is a journey and if you have the will, then you can finish it. Everyone learns. There are no limitations based on incoming skills.” The program breaks barriers and provides opportunities for students and faculty. As Dr. Faltens asks, "Instead of having doors closed to them, what can we open for them?"
Read more about the NCN URE community college students’ research experiences.
The NCN URE program is supported by the Network for Computational Nanotechnology through the National Science Foundation (NSF) award EEC-1227020.