NSF Funds Research Opportunities in Computer Science

April 16, 2014

Pursuing a graduate degree in the STEM disciplines offers compelling research opportunities, but for some undergraduates, it represents an intimidating step into unmapped territory. Harvey Mudd College is committed to providing its undergraduates with hands-on research experiences to help prepare them for the rigors of graduate school and beyond. The National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program is an exciting example of this commitment.

Professors Zach Dodds and Benjamin Wiedermann recently received an NSF grant for the continuation of an REU site in computer science to support undergraduate research. This is the fourth consecutive three-year grant the department has earned for its REUs.

In a typical REU, students work closely with assigned faculty mentors in an immersive approach designed to emulate the best facets of a graduate school experience. The 10-week program takes students through the major steps of the research process, from literature survey and problem formulation to scholarly papers and formal presentations.

Their proposed research project, “REU Site in Computer Systems,” received funding for research and research assistants, travel, housing and meals, among other expenses. Professors Dodds and Wiedermann will oversee projects in robotics and static program analysis, respectively. Three additional faculty mentors—professors Ran Libeskind-Hadas, Melissa O’Neill and Robert Keller—will offer projects in algorithms for evolutionary inference, garbage collection and memory management, and intelligent music software systems, respectively.

The breadth and variety of projects helps to attract students with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. On top of being an invaluable learning experience for undergraduates, Dodds and Wiedermann both stress a common goal: that students truly enjoy it.

“To fulfill the conditions for funding, we’re charged with building a vibrant research community, through trips to other schools, social outings and regular presentations where students update one another on their projects,” explains Wiedermann. “All CS researchers participate, regardless of funding, which means we’re able to amplify the NSF’s support and all the support we get from Harvey Mudd College and the Computer Science Department.”

The REU expands research opportunities for undergraduates at participating colleges, giving them valuable graduate-level research experience and creating a broader pool of qualified scientists from which graduate institutions and potential employers can draw. One of the Harvey Mudd College REU’s stated goals is to increase underrepresented populations in CS and the STEM disciplines. And according to Wiedermann, the funding ensures a more inclusive, accessible research experience for students and faculty.

“We’re excited to continue the program. It means we’ll have three more years of excellent research collaborators. Without NSF funding, those students might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do research, and Harvey Mudd College would almost certainly have lost the chance to work with them.”