Physics Department News Archive

October 25, 2005

National Science Foundation Announces Undergraduate Research Centers

Arlington, VA - The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced it will fund two new Undergraduate Research Centers (URCs), one based at The Ohio State University and the other headed by the University of South Dakota and Augustana College.

Together with a URC based at Purdue University, funded in 2004, these centers will constitute a 5-year, $9 million experiment to attract undergraduates into science from the very beginning of their college careers.

URCs will try to accomplish that mission by giving college students a chance to participate in authentic, potentially publishable research using the most up-to-date tools and methods. In that sense, the URC program will resemble some of the foundation's existing education efforts, notably the long-established Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. But unlike the REU awards, which tend to serve juniors and seniors at a relatively limited number of four-year colleges and universities, the URCs will seek to attract first- and second-year students in a much broader range of institutions--explicitly including 2-year community colleges, where nearly half of today's college students begin their studies.

"If we don't draw these students into science during their first years in college, it may be too late by the time they transfer into 4-year schools," says Richard D. Foust, NSF's program officer for the URC effort.

Indeed, a second major goal of the URC program is to get more of the nation's colleges involved in research. To that end, each of the three URCs has assembled a wide-ranging coalition of partner institutions.

Because NSF's Division of Chemistry leads this pilot program, all URC research projects are in the chemical sciences or in interdisciplinary areas supported by the chemical sciences.

"These first awards exemplify the kind of bold new models and partnerships the URC program was designed to support," says chemistry division director Arthur B. Ellis. "The projects hold great promise for strengthening our national chemical research enterprise by broadening participation to involve a much larger and more diverse talent pool, and by building research capacity at the participating institutions."

Locally, the funding will provide for the creation of the Nothern Plains Undergraduate Research Center. Professor Mary Berry of the University of South Dakota is the principal investigator (PI), and Augustana's Gary Earl is a co-PI. Augustana faculty Jetty Duffy-Matzner, Brian Moore, Duane Weisshaar, and Eric Wells are involved in the project. In the initial stages, students in the honors section of General Chemistry at Augustana will be characterizing the properties of novel ionic liquids synthisized here. This research experience will become an integral part of the introductory curriculum. This multi-institutional reform is expected to bring research experiences to approximately 600 first-year students per year when the program is at full capacity across all of the partner schools.

The center will provide access to major research instrumentation, along with technical expertise and training for setting-up and using modern scientific equipment and methods. It will sponsor research symposia and workshops on grant writing for participating faculty. It will also facilitate connections to industrial and government laboratories and international student exchange programs, and it will attempt to build a stronger foundation for early undergraduate research through high school teacher outreach and training programs. In addition to its funding from NSF's chemistry division, the Northern Plains URC will receive support from the foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and its Office of Multidisciplinary Activities in the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The principal investigator will be University of South Dakota chemist Mary Berry. The university's partners will include Augustana College; Mount Marty College; Dordt College; Buena Vista University; Sinte Gleska University; and Fort Berthold Community College.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.47 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

The NSF press release is available here:

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