Summer research programs prepare undergraduates for grad school and beyond

Group photo of a diverse group of students displaying certificates from their REU program
Tami Bond’s REU students pose with their certificates after their final project presentations.

For some 18 to 21-year-old college students, summer jobs might involve tasks like scooping ice cream, standing poolside watching over splashing swimmers, or roaming the side streets with five of the neighborhood’s dogs.

Some undergraduate students took this summer to kick off their future in STEM by participating in a 10-week summer undergraduate research program at Colorado State University.

There are two separate but equal summer research programs in the mechanical engineering department at CSU. Within these programs, undergraduate students take on research projects and work alongside faculty members to develop solutions to real-world issues related to their programs’ respective themes.

One program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Tami Bond, Scott Presidential Chair in Energy, Environment and Health in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, hosted this summer’s REU program, which was centered around the theme of airborne contaminants that affect human health, specifically pollution.

The other program, called the Summer Research Program (SRP), was created by the department to recruit top talent into energy, materials, and health faculty graduate research programs. The program was envisioned by Todd Bandhauer, associate department head for Graduate Studies, and modeled after REU programs like Bond’s.

While the two programs centered around different research topics, the basic goal at hand is the same—to provide students with research opportunities to better prepare them for graduate school, and beyond.

“A big part of the program that we try to provide is the understanding of professional pathways available to the students,” Bond said. “Many students know that graduate school exists, but they don’t know what it’s like. This program gives students a taste of the research experience so they can understand more what they would be doing in graduate school and whether it’s the right path for them.”

Bond and Bandhauer acknowledge there is a big difference between undergraduate and graduate mechanical engineering programs, and their respective programs work to bridge the gap for students who haven’t yet had exposure to graduate-level thinking.

“Coming to graduate school changes the way we think,” Bandhauer said. “In graduate school, we approach problems differently because we don’t know the answer or solution beforehand. Developing that problem-solving skill is not only key to being successful in grad school, but it’s also key to professional development.”

Photo of Karia Del Toro Garza posing with aluminum duct work and air quality analysis instruments.
Del Toro Garza poses next to her research project on HVAC filter efficiency.

Karia Del Toro Garza, a fourth-year mechanical engineering undergraduate student at CSU, is one of the students who reaped the benefits of these programs. Del Toro Garza knew that experience conducting academic research would be vital in continuing her journey to grad school, and in one day landing her dream job of being an engineering professor.

Del Toro Garza participated in this summer’s REU program working with Bond to test the efficiency of air filters for home HVAC systems, which is becoming increasingly necessary with the influx of Western wildfires.

“We are aware of the contamination and pollution outside of our own homes, but we don’t really think about that air coming into our homes,” Del Toro Garza said. “This research is really about finding an affordable and efficient solution that can just be installed into people’s houses rather than making people go out and buy super expensive equipment to filtrate their home.”

Yuchen Huang from Gonzaga University in Washington is another student who took advantage of the research opportunity in Bandhauer’s SRP under the instruction of David Prawel. Huang was a part of a biomedical engineering research project studying bone regrowth. Huang designed bone scaffolding that would enhance blood flow, cell growth, and bone strength.

“It was nice to be around other students from all over the country that come from different backgrounds but are still like-minded and have similar academic curiosity,” Huang said. “The program was also great for character development. I learned a lot of technical things, but I also learned about perseverance and determination, which will be helpful for life in general.”

The SRP is funded by the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Office of the Provost, CSU’s Energy Institute, and various faculty research projects. Bond’s program was supported primarily by NSF’s Division of Engineering Education with additional funding from the Walter Scott Jr., College of Engineering.

In addition to covering costs of research equipment and resources, these funding sources cover cost-of-living and provides a stipend. About 70 percent of those who participated in the summer programs in the past year were non-CSU students from other states or international students.

A group of students from the Summer Research Program pose together.
Students from the SRP who were voted top research projects by a group of judges. (Left to right: Simon Costello- most creative project, Yuchen Huang- first place, Alex Yohe- audience’s favorite, Clint Middlemist- second place, Lars Mitchel- third place)

Students like Tatiana Gamboa, a sophomore environmental resources engineering student from California State Polytechnic University, relocated to Colorado for the summer. Gamboa worked with mechanical engineering’s Christian L’Orange on a project involving coding a filter system that would automatically turn on when air quality is poor.

“People here are really helpful and my cohort is amazing,” Gamboa said. “The program was challenging, but I felt more encouraged to work through my struggles and learn rather than feeling pressured to finish something.”

The hope is that students will want to continue their academic journey at CSU—and it seems to be working. Some participants have expressed an interest in CSU graduate school programs.

“We know that once students make a visit to Fort Collins and see our high quality of life combined with the great research and academic environment that we have at CSU, they want to stay,” Bandhauer said. “Basically, to any student that academically performs well, wants to come to Colorado and enjoy the beautiful scenery, and be a part of game-changing technologies, CSU is the place to be.”