This article is published in the January 2012 issue.

Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates: The CREU Program

The Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates (CREU) program encourages and supports undergraduate women and minorities in computing research. It was started by CRA-W under the name “CREW” in 1998, and since 2004 has been administered collaboratively by CRA-W and the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC).

The goal of CREU is to increase the number of women and minorities who continue on to graduate school in computer science and computer engineering. Teams of undergraduates work with faculty member sponsors 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.

Research shows that peer support can have a significant impact on persistence in computer science education and that women, in particular, benefit from having a critical mass of female colleagues. Thus, in providing students with research support, the CREU program emphasizes collaboration and cohort. The CREU program also implements, either directly or indirectly, several recommendations for recruiting and retaining women in computing research, which have been put forth by Cuny and Aspray (, as well as others. These include: providing a vehicle by which students can learn about the opportunities and rewards of a research career, as well as the preparation required; giving individual encouragement to undergraduates from underrepresented groups; and providing a natural environment for actively and diligently mentoring students.

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

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. They are able to meet researchers from outside their home institutions and receive feedback and advice on their work from a broad audience. More generally, having the opportunity to participate in the wider research community is both exciting and empowering.

Beginning in 2009-10, the CREU co-directors have designated one conference each year as the “CREU cohort conference.” For the 2009-10 cohort the meeting place was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2010 in Atlanta. And for the 2010-11 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).

The next official CREU cohort meeting place will be the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2012.

Preparation for Graduate School and Other Programs

CREU participants work closely with their faculty mentors and, in some cases, also have the opportunity to interact with post-docs and graduate students. As a result, in addition to “trying out” research for themselves, students can begin to get a sense of what they might expect from graduate school and a career in research. Their interactions with mentors can naturally lead to conversations about graduate school and the application process, and if the collaboration works well, the advisor will be in a good position to write strong letters of recommendation that speak directly to a student’s independence, creativity, and enthusiasm. In general, the student becomes more competitive for graduate admissions, fellowships, and other programs. All of these are especially important, given the evidence that women and underrepresented minorities are subject to stereotype threat and that they do not promote themselves the way their majority male counterparts do.

CREU Project Successes

CREU teams have addressed a wide range of topic areas over the years, and many of those teams have been quite successful. Given space constraints, we cannot cover all of the success stories here, but instead we provide a sample of some recent projects.

In 2009-10, a group of students at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, together with their advisor, embarked on a project to study frameworks for developing multi-touch applications to enhance K-12 education. Their goals were to determine the type of interface that would allow teachers to devise interactive multi-touch applications effectively, to determine the effect that the multi-touch platform would have on student learning, and to determine whether multi-touch platforms could be made affordable enough to be accessible to low-income schools. Based on this work, the team placed third at the National Finals of the Microsoft ImagineCup in Washington, D.C. and had several other opportunities to present their work. Through their work, the students not only gained experience and confidence themselves, but they served as role models through their outreach activities to K-12 students.

In 2010-11, a group from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez studied body-area networks for bio-telemetric applications. Focusing on monitoring vital signs of firefighters, their goals were to determine the appropriate parameters for monitoring a firefighter’s health, to develop routing protocols to optimize communication, and to develop hardware to withstand the harsh environment in which it would be used. The students gave several presentations on their work, including a poster presentation at the CAHSI Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the CAHSI conference, one of the students also led an undergraduate student panel about research experiences for undergraduates. Like the group above, these students not only developed their own skills and confidence, but actively sought out opportunities to be role models for others.

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.”

How to Propose a CREU Project

Applications to the CREU program are in the form of research proposals. Students should be actively involved in writing the proposal, with the guidance and support of their faculty mentors. The proposal should contain a project description, the specific questions to be addressed or hypotheses to be investigated, the plan and methods for carrying out the research, and a summary of related work on the topic along with appropriate citations. In addition, the proposal should describe the student and faculty responsibilities and the timeline.

The proposal is also the means by which the CREU program gets to know the students who would be involved in the project. Thus the proposal should include relevant information about the students, such as their transcripts and explanations of the ways in which the CREU project would provide a meaningful experience for them.

For more information on CREU, please go to:

CREU reviews project proposals once a year. The proposal deadline is typically in early May.

Andrea Danyluk is a professor in the Computer Science Department at Williams College. She is a member of CRA-W and co-directs the CREU program with Jamika Burge, a member of the Coalition to Diversify Computing. CREU is funded by a grant from the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program.

Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates: The CREU Program