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Heather hunt and a group of students converse around a table.

Principal investigator Heather Hunt, associate professor of Bioengineering, will lead the College of Engineering’s latest REU, “REU: Creative Approaches to Materials Design and Processing,” this summer.

Mizzou Engineering has been awarded a third prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site, this one with a creative twist.

Principal investigator Heather Hunt, associate professor of Bioengineering; co-principal investigator Mahmoud Almasri, associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the materials-focused faculty in MU’s College of Engineering found out in February that the NSF had approved their REU Site proposal, entitled  “REU: Creative Approaches to Materials Design and Processing,” for funding, with the first undergraduates to join MU’s research team this summer.

The site is approved for three years and joins two existing REU sites hosted in the College of Engineering, “Summer Research Projects in Neuroscience,” and “Undergraduate Research in Consumer Networking Technologies.”. Mizzou is one of just nine universities nationwide and the only member of the Southeastern Conference with three or more engineering-based sites.

“(Associate Dean for Research and Bioengineering Professor) Sheila Grant actually called our whole group together,” Hunt said. “There’s a large materials group throughout the university, so she’s been trying to corral all the engineering faculty who do materials research to submit larger grant proposals.

“Late last July, Sheila emailed everyone and said, ‘Hey, the REU announcement is out. Let’s get the group together and do this.’”

REU sites recruit, host and fund approximately 10 undergraduates per site per year from outside of the host institution to perform ground-breaking research in a themed area of national importance. These students work alongside faculty on ongoing research projects, building marketable skills, growing their research experience and often contributing to major scientific advancements and publications.

In this case, students will be learning the fundamentals of the interrelationships of materials’ structure, composition, processing, and properties in a nine-week summer program, which will be run in conjunction with the Mizzou Office of Undergraduate Research’ Summer Intern Program. The REU site is set up to help participants develop unique, measurable skills in computational modeling, materials science design, processing, characterization and creative thinking.

“What we decided to do is use our ongoing, collaborative research projects across the spectrum of cutting-edge materials research, but particularly in materials design and processing, so that students have the opportunity to explore materials research from atomic level simulation to synthesis to fabrication to characterization, and then scale up to large-scale manufacturing technology,” Hunt explained.  “It’s a rare opportunity for students to experience the full spectrum of materials research in one location.”

To do this, the REU needed a team of high-quality materials researchers to mentor the students. Fortunately, Mizzou hosts a number of stellar researchers in this area, many of whom share appointments outside engineering, including:

  • Sheila Grant, professor of Bioengineering
  • Andrew Gu, professor of Bioengineering
  • Karl Hammond, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering
  • Jian Lin, assistant professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • Matt Maschmann, assistant professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • Ferris Pfeiffer, assistant professor of Bioengineering
  • Chad Xing, professor of Chemical Engineering
  • Suzanne Burgoyne, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theatre

Burgoyne’s inclusion has to do with the novel component to this particular REU. She, Pfeiffer, Hunt, and the Bioengineering faculty have been implementing evidence-based theater techniques, developed by Burgoyne, to improve the creative thinking skills of  Bioengineering students during their senior design (capstone) course. The data collected from the last two years of these activities was crucial in Mizzou Engineering landing the REU site.

“Most REUs are not funded because the activities they propose that are outside of the research are just normal, run of the mill, professional development activities. I looked at it and said, ‘We have this creativity thing we’ve been doing, and it’s been really successful in improving measured outcomes like engineering design self-efficacy in our students. Can we fold it in to the REU site proposal to see if the same gains can be realized when the creativity training techniques are implemented in a research scenario in addition to the classroom scenario we’ve been studying the past few years?’” Hunt explained.

“At the time, we had two years of data showing that this type of training improved engineering design self-efficacy, improved creativity, etc., which Ferris and the team have published on previously.”

Hunt credited the Office of Undergraduate Research and its director, Linda Blockus, for allowing their REU proposal to utilize the previously-existing summer internship program to provide the necessary professional development component. And she also thanked Susan Renoe of the Broader Impacts Network (now known as The Connector) for providing ready-made review criterion for review of the non-research portion of the REU.

With the work of the materials researchers and the help of additional, on-campus sources, the first application attempt received rave reviews. Now, it’s on to the summer.

“I was really pleasantly surprised with the reviews. REU proposals usually have to have a couple go-rounds before you get accepted,” Hunt said. “We are so excited to get started and can’t wait to host our first class of outstanding new researchers this summer!”

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