Renewable Resources: Theme with Broad Societal Impact for REU Students

Publication Information:

Burkett, S.L, S. Gerster,  T.J. Freeborn, E.R. Giannini, R.M. Frazier, D.M. McCallum, G. Quenneville, “Renewable Resources: Theme with Broad Societal Impact for REU Students,” ASEE Annual Conference, 2018.

Year: 2018

Renewable Resources, as our Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site theme, provides a socially relevant context and unifies the student cohort. In our nine-week program, ten students are immersed each year in projects related to renewable resources. They also engage in professional development seminars and a six-week entrepreneurship course (Crimson Startup). Each research project involves investigating various properties of bamboo. Bamboo was chosen based on recent interest in Alabama as a product with potential for economic benefit. Faculty mentors were brought together during the proposal phase of the program to discuss ways of getting involved in bamboo research. Our team’s advisory board is invested in marketing, distributing, and commercializing bamboo products. The board includes members of a non-profit group, a small business, and the owner of a bamboo nursery. They provide inspiration and support for our REU Site. Students engage with the board members during a field trip to observe a fully developed bamboo nursery. In the second summer, a speaker from the University of Pittsburgh was invited to campus to initiate collaborations due to his NSF-funded research project using bamboo as a nonconventional building material. One of our recent students worked on seismic performance of bamboo framing systems and found an opportunity to work on a project in Ecuador rebuilding homes from bamboo in low-income communities after a disastrous earthquake in 2016.

Assessment of program activities led to improvements in both the professional development and entrepreneurial training aspects of the project. After the first summer, bi-weekly professional development seminars became weekly seminars to give students more time as a cohort and to incorporate some equipment training. Changes in the Crimson Startup course include: adding a half-day orientation to describe the program, assigning a coach to every team, requiring weekly office hours between teams and coaches, and clarification of the business model canvas (format used for weekly presentations). In focus group discussions and on questionnaires, students indicated that the renewable resource focus is a very attractive aspect of the REU. The students also expressed appreciation of the social value of renewable resources in general and bamboo specifically. Many were attracted to the REU particularly because of its emphasis on these materials. Evaluation results show that overall, the students have been happy with the program, and there was somewhat improved satisfaction with the Crimson Startup program in the second year. On nine-month follow-up surveys with students from the first year, all students said they would recommend the REU to other students; and students from the second year who completed a survey at the end of the summer all rated the REU experience as “excellent” and said they would recommend it to others.


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