Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates

Originally Printed in the Summer/Fall 2011 Newsletter

By Andrea Danyluk, Williams College

What do multivariate time series analysis of physiological and clinical data, dynamic analysis of web application access logs for software testing, and development of body-area networks for bio-telemetric applications have in common? They’re all projects that have been supported by the Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates (CREU) program. CREU, which encourages and supports undergraduate student research, was started by CRA-W under the name “CREW” in 1998, and since 2004 has been a collaboration between CRA-W and the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC). Dr. Jamika Burge (CDC) and Prof. Andrea Danyluk (CRA-W) currently lead the program. CREU is funded by a grant from the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program.

Building Positive Research Experiences: Becoming a Member of a Research Team

The goal of the CREU program is to increase the numbers of women and minorities who continue on to graduate school in computer science and computer engineering.  Teams of undergraduates work with faculty member mentors at their home institutions on research projects during the academic year and optionally the following summer.  Acknowledging the significant and wide-ranging impact that computing has on virtually all disciplines, the CREU program includes not only computing research, but also multidisciplinary research.  In the case of multidisciplinary projects, a team consists of faculty from both the computing and non-computing fields as well as students from these respective fields.

Students in CREU projects tend to already know their advisors and each other.  This level of familiarity from the start, together with regular meetings, collaboration, and an overall shared sense of purpose makes it possible for the students to build strong relationships with each other and to have a strong sense of belonging to a research community.  The ability to work on the project through
an entire academic year and into the next summer provides a complete research experience that can be more difficult to achieve in a shorter period of time.

CREU students receive stipends for their work, both during the academic year and during the summer.  This acknowledges the research as an important contribution to computer science and, of course, the students themselves.

Becoming a Member of the Wider Research Community

Students participating in CREU are strongly encouraged to submit papers to journals and to present papers or posters at national or regional conferences.  The program provides travel funds to support such participation, and CREU participants over the years have found this to be extremely valuable.  Having the opportunity to participate in the wider research community is both exciting and empowering.

Beginning in 2009-2010, the CREU co-directors have designated one conference each year as the “CREU cohort conference.” For the 2009-2010 cohort the meeting place was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2010 in Atlanta. And for the 2010-2011 cohort it was the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, held in San Francisco. Many CREU groups attended these meetings, presented posters on their research, and gathered for social events together with student and faculty participants in DREU, the Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (also a CRA-W and CDC collaboration).

Feedback on CREU

Over 540 underrepresented students have participated in 223 CREU projects over the years.  Students report that they learn a great deal through their CREU experience and that they develop stronger research and leadership skills.  Many are inspired to apply to graduate school and find that CREU helps them to clarify their career choices.  More generally, students develop a better sense of themselves as computer scientists.  As one participant said, “My advisor pushes my team hard in a good way, where I am no longer proving my worth as a female but as a scientist.”

For more information on the CREU program, click here.