In August, several faculty mentors within the Department of Geoscience at Hobart and William Smith Colleges completed research with a cohort of undergraduate students as part of a recent grant from the National Science Foundation. Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird, Associate Professor of Geoscience Nick Metz, Associate Professor of Geoscience Tara Curtin, and Associate Professor of Geoscience Dave Finkelstein received a NSF grant totaling nearly $400,000 in collaboration with colleagues at Plymouth State University to develop a new Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) site that funds 12 undergraduate researchers each summer for a 9-week program.
The Northeast Partnership for Atmospheric & Related Sciences (NEPARS) REU site provides an opportunity for students to explore atmospheric and related sciences, develop research skills, and establish close connections with their peers and faculty mentors.
The NSF REU site is something new for HWS. In 2018, both the Geoscience and Math Departments were the first in the history of the Colleges to receive funding from NSF to establish REU sites. “Receiving NSF funding for an REU site at HWS is great recognition of our science programs at HWS”, says Laird, who serves as director of the NEPARS REU. “The NEPARS REU recruits students from colleges and universities from across the U.S. and raises the visibility of our science programs at HWS.”
As part of the collaborative NEPARS REU, the student researchers work with faculty mentors primarily at one of two research locations for most of the summer – either at HWS or Plymouth State. At three different points throughout the summer, the two groups come together — at HWS, at Plymouth State, and at the State University of New York in Albany — to discuss research findings and build connections among students and mentors in the full REU group. The NEPARS REU, which partners with the Mt. Washington Observatory and the Department of Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences at SUNY Albany, also offers additional educational and networking experiences that promote interactions of students with all the REU mentors and collaborating scientists.
“The REU faculty are very generous with their time and mentoring by each working closely with 2-4 REU student researchers and engaging with all REU students”, Laird says.
The NEPARS REU has a focus of primarily working with rising sophomores and rising juniors that have not had a previous opportunity to conduct scientific research. “Traditionally, research has often been left to more senior undergraduates and graduate students. However, I’ve found in my nine years at HWS that time and time again, undergraduates with only one or two years of undergraduate studies are able to complete amazing projects,” says Metz, who serves as a NEPARS REU faculty mentor. “These projects almost always lead to conference presentations and often to journal publications. The ability to conduct collaborative research with these talented students in the REU, along with our amazing students in the HWS Summer Research Program, is one of absolute best parts of working at HWS.”
During the summer research experience, students learn how to develop and follow a research question over the progression of an entire project, how to network and collaborate with other students and scientists, and why oral and written communication skills are so essential in the sciences. They also develop “an understanding that research is iterative and complex, but that it also can be approachable for students who have only completed one or two years of undergraduate studies,” Metz says. This “formative experience” for students early in their academic careers “positions them very well as they continue their undergraduate studies and subsequently pursue a professional career or graduate school,” says Metz.
In addition to students from HWS and Plymouth State, REU students in just the past two years have come from a large variety of colleges and universities. They include: the College of DuPage, Cornell University, Earlham College, East Los Angeles College, Elizabethtown College, Millersville University, Minnesota State University, Ohio University, St. Cloud State University, St. Louis University, SUNY Brockport, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Stony Brook, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Nebraska, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, University of Oklahoma, University of Puerto Rico, University of Rochester and University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
“It is very beneficial for our HWS student researchers, and REU faculty mentors, to have these type of meaningful, summer-long experiences with students coming to Geneva from other colleges and universities,” says Laird. “It definitely produces an environment for collaborative learning outside regular academic year and classroom settings.”