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Materials, creativity create potent mix in novel NSF REU

A man in a suit stands in front of a poster.

Camden Boyle participated in the Creative Approaches to Materials Design and Processing REU site. It’s one of three REU sites hosted by Mizzou Engineering, and this particular version is in its second year of funding. Photo by Liz Lannin.

Take several eager undergraduates, a huge helping of cutting-edge materials science research and a dose of theater-based creativity and mix them all together — what do you get?

One unique and highly educational National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

Heather Hunt, associate professor of Biomedical, Biological & Chemical Engineering, is the site director for the Creative Approaches to Materials Design and Processing REU site. It’s one of three REU sites hosted by Mizzou Engineering, and this particular version is in its second year of funding.

The goal of the NSF REU program is to give undergraduates from across the country the chance to spend the summer at other institutions and get real-world research experience under the tutelage of some of the top faculty in their given field. They work alongside the faculty and other participants, with many having the opportunity to publish in various scientific journals.

“We want students to learn about how to do research, but we also want them to make significant progress so we can include them in our publications. It’s a balancing act,” Hunt said.

The Mizzou faculty involved are world-class instructors and researchers from BBCE and Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, alongside Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theatre Suzanne Burgoyne, who lends her expertise to the creativity aspect of the REU. Hunt, BBCE Assistant Professor Ferris Pfeiffer and Burgoyne have been working for years to utilize theater concepts in an engineering setting to encourage students to think outside the box when conducting research or looking for engineering-based solutions.

“We saw such enormous gains in creativity last year over the eight-week timeline that we’re excited to see if we achieve the same levels of improvement this year,” Hunt explained.

After stretching their creative muscles each morning of their creativity seminar, students worked in groups, coming up with solutions to the project they were assigned. The research included materials topics ranging from biomechanics to biosensing to battery development and more. They presented their final results at the MU Summer Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum, giving them experience translating their research for a lay audience.

Having students from across the country and from various STEM backgrounds participate exposes them to the kind of interdisciplinary work that’s shaping the future of the engineering discipline and research around the globe.

“Because we are open to students from any STEM discipline, we know that it can be difficult to translate across disciplinary boundaries and to train students in something very out of field for them,” Hunt said. “However, interdisciplinary work is where all the fun occurs, and so from both their perspective and our perspective, practicing that translation is good for everyone.

“But we are also fortunate to have a wide array of excellent faculty who deeply care about training and mentoring the next generation of materials researchers, and you can see it come out in the students’ final presentations — the passion the faculty have really shines through in their students.”

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