A group of 15 institutions, including the University, have received a $5 million grant to fund long-term research opportunities for undergraduate and master’s students.

The grant, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, will establish the Vertically Integrated Projects consortium, an expansion of a similar research program currently running on campus. The Helmsley Trust, in part, aims to increase the diversity and number of students entering STEM fields upon graduation.

The VIP consortium would allow groups of approximately 10 to 30 students to conduct research with leading faculty researchers — projects that could continue throughout a student’s undergraduate career, rather than just a semester or academic year.

There are currently eight long-term research teams at the University, and with additional funding the University hopes to effectively double that number within three years. The expansion could result in the creation of nearly 300 student research positions.

Gail Hohner, managing director of the College of Engineering’s Multidisciplinary Design Program, said VIP projects typically include elements of design, building and testing.

“The process of conducting research is highly iterative, with many attempts failing before success is identified,” she said. “Students will have an active role in each iteration, learning along with the faculty where successes might be found, and where they won’t. This level of involvement is only possible in a multi-term engagement.”

For undergraduates, the projects present opportunities to assume leadership positions, as well as a chance to form a strong foundation in research. The projects are engineering based, but students from all disciplines are encouraged to apply, as many involve a variety of roles.

University teams are currently working to model Great Lakes water flows, develop connected vehicle technology and test smartphone-sized spacecraft.

The program runs for the duration of the academic year, as well as the spring and summer terms.

“Two or three students in a lab require lots and lots of effort on the part of the faculty member,” Hohner said wrote in a press release. “And typically the students aren’t there for a long time. But when you have a critical mass of students that stick around, they start to self-organize. You’ll have a cohort of underclassmen that grows up in the lab.”

Engineering freshman Sarah Peterson said she is interested in pursuing more long-term research opportunities at the University, making this project particularly appealing.

“I’m not currently doing research, but I feel like if there was a way to stay with one project at a time you would get more into it because you know you are attached to it long-term,” Peterson said. “There is more of a commitment there. Should I choose to do a research project, I would like this approach more because you would get to know the people and really understand the project.”

Though she is interested in research, Engineering freshman Diana Thompson said she is not sure about the longer commitment.

“You would have to stick with the same project, and trying different research teams would be more beneficial, for me, in terms of deciding what I want to do,” Thompson said.

The program will work in tandem with the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, with UROP students working on VIP teams and eligible to receive credits or a stipend for their research. Non-UROP students will receive credit hours.

Hohner said students can apply for the VIP program during the MDP recruitment process in October.

Peterson said she hopes the initiative will help students feel a sense of ownership over their research projects and provide an opportunity to take on more responsibility.

“If the University took into account that kind of connection between the lab workers and the project itself, it would improve my vision of what research here entails.”

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