This article is published in the September 2013 issue.

Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates: the CREU program still going strong at 15

The Collaborative Research Experience for Undergraduates (CREU) program has evolved in a number of ways since it was introduced by CRA-W under the name “CREW” in 1998.  But several key ingredients – collaboration, cohort, and strong mentoring – remain central to the program.

Administered jointly by CRA-W and the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC) since 2004, CREU encourages and supports undergraduates and minorities in computing research.  The goal of the program 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, in some cases, the following summer. The ability to work on the project through an entire academic year 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.  This acknowledges the research as an important contribution to computer science and, of course, the students themselves.

Collaboration: Becoming a Member of a Research Team

image001 (1)Research shows that peer support can have significant impact on persistence in computer science education and in particular that women benefit from having a critical mass of female colleagues.  Thus in providing students with research support, the CREU program emphasizes collaboration in the form of small (typically 2-4 students) teams.

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.  It also provides a natural way for students to learn that a group can be much stronger than the sum of the individuals in it.  As one CREU student put it, “We’re all from completely different backgrounds and think about computer science in completely different ways […] It turns out that this is actually our strength.  […] Instead of clashing we help each other and when we encounter things that nobody knows we work together to figure it out.”

Cohort: 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.

In the past year alone, CREU students have been co-authors on papers presented at a wide and impressive array of venues, including the USENIX conference on File and Storage Technologies (FAST2013), the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), and the ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE 2013).

Fourteen CREU posters were presented at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2012, which was the official cohort meeting place for CREU 2011-12 students.  Ten CREU students attended or presented posters at the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing 2013.

Mentoring for Success

It’s hard to say enough about the importance of good mentoring.  From devising a good project to guiding the work to providing advice on careers, the mentor is a critical component of each CREU project.

Mentoring begins early in CREU projects. Applications to the CREU program are in the form of research proposals, and we expect students to be actively involved in writing the proposal, with the guidance and support of their faculty mentors.  Of course, crafting the project itself is typically the advisor’s job, and it can be a challenging one.  The key is to design a project that is truly a research experience (i.e., that doesn’t have a known outcome or solution) and that requires only the skills and experience that an undergraduate can reasonably be expected to have, but that also has a good probability of success in a one-year time frame.

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 they work on their projects.  Some mentors work side-by-side with students in the lab.  Others schedule weekly group meetings to review the students’ progress and set goals for the next week.  Through this close interaction, CREU mentors keep their students moving forward.  As one student put it, her mentor was “great about guiding us through difficulties, making sure we have the resources we need and helping us stay on track.”

Informal interactions between students and mentors can be just as important as formal meetings.  CREU students note and appreciate these interactions.  “By working on this project, I am learning a lot about a career in academia and about graduate school and the field in general.  I am really glad that through this project, I have learned a lot more about this field and not just about the project that I am working on.”  We expect that CREU mentors will take a genuine interest in the professional development of their students and will talk to them about their career ambitions, about being a researcher, applying to graduate school and so on.

Finally, CREU mentors serve as role models.  In addition to “trying out” research for themselves, the students observe real researchers – their mentors – at work.

How to Get Involved in a CREU Project

An application to the CREU program consists of a research proposal.  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, and so 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: and click on the CREU link.  CREU reviews project proposals once a year.  The proposal deadline is typically in early May.

To learn more about strategies for being a good undergraduate research mentor, go to the link given above, and scroll down to the Resources for Mentors of Undergraduate Research.  CRA-W has compiled its own set of resources, along with pointers to many others, including the REU-In-A-Box resource developed by NCWIT’s Academic Alliance.

Andrea Danyluk, Jamika Burge, and Joel Branch co-direct the CREU program. Andrea Danyluk is a Professor in the Computer Science Department at Williams College.  She is a  CRA-W Board Member. Jamika Burge is a Researcher at Information Systems Worldwide and is the Chair-Elect of the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC). Joel Branch is a Researcher at IBM and a Board member of CDC.  CREU is funded by a grant to the CRA-W/CDC Alliance from the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program.