Enriching Experiences Beyond the Classroom for Undergraduates

When Dr. Lorenzo Cremaschi — a professor of mechanical engineering and also Auburn University’s Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) — was an undergraduate at the University of Modena back in his native Italy, he was just up the road from the Ferrari manufacturing plant in the nearby city of Maranello. So he knows what it means to go fast.

Speaking with Cremaschi, it doesn’t take long to sense his tremendous energy and enthusiasm for the cause of undergraduate research. Fast is exactly how he would like to see Auburn’s program continue to develop, in order to provide underclassmen with more learning experiences outside the classroom and opportunities to explore areas to which they otherwise might not be exposed.

“The OUR has generally not been very well understood,” said Cremaschi, who took over as director in 2021. “So, one of our first priorities is to better define it and how it fits into the university’s overall mission. Each of the university’s 12 colleges has its own undergraduate research component, but we want to be the glue that binds them all together.”

In fact, in many ways undergraduate research has unintentionally been one of the university’s best-kept secrets, usually overshadowed by the tremendous amount of graduate-level research that takes place to help make Auburn a Tier 1 research university. But on average, 1,000 Auburn undergraduates also participate in research projects each year, and the OUR works with the colleges to promote and financially support more than 100 competitive undergraduate research fellowships annually. Fellowships average approximately $6,000 and are funded equally by the colleges and OUR.

Although the majority of undergraduate research is conducted in STEM fields, proposals come from every college on campus. The OUR is also collaborating with the Honors College and the Office of Inclusion and Diversity to increase diversity among participants through the Matthews Scholar Program, named to honor Dr. Josetta Brittain Matthews, Auburn’s first African American graduate and faculty member.  The funding provided by the program is open to all students but focuses on members of underrepresented populations. “In the past, our minority participation has hovered below 10 percent, but this year, in large part due to the Matthews Program, it has been much better,” Cremaschi noted. “Based on the number of applicants we have seen so far, I would like to eventually see it reach as high as 25 percent of our total proposals.”

Another way the OUR works to increase participation by all students — as well as potential faculty mentors for them — is through an open house event every fall semester. More than 300 students and 75 faculty members participated in the most recent open house this fall, and Cremaschi hopes a change to a larger venue will attract even more interest in the future. The OUR also has implemented a faculty-student research matching program, which has paired 34 students to faculty mentors with areas of similar interest. Approximately two additional students are paired with faculty mentors each week.

Cremaschi is quick to point out that participation in undergraduate research provides benefits not only for students, but for faculty members as well. “Many students participate out of curiosity; they want to experience more of what they have learned in class,” he said. “And there is no doubt that conducting research at the undergraduate level puts them on a better path to future graduate school or job offers.”

For faculty members, the motivations differ. “For some,” Cremaschi added, “mentoring an undergraduate provides them an opportunity to explore a new idea that might not be fully funded otherwise. For young professors, it’s a good way to get experience in directing and mentoring research with a quick turnaround. And for senior faculty, it’s a great way to explore a new field or topic as well as to identify and recruit potential graduate students for more complex research.”

The annual Student Research Symposium, an event in the spring, gives both graduate and undergraduate student researchers the opportunity to make public presentations summarizing their work. The OUR sponsors the undergraduate portion of the event, and in order to help students prepare, the OUR collaborates with the Biggio Center, the University Writing Laboratory and the University Libraries to assist with developing abstracts, preparing presentations, and writing research articles. This year’s Student Research Symposium included 410 presentations and more than 2,000 participants. A team of approximately 400 judges chose 68 student presentations for awards.

“The Symposium gives students a chance to showcase their projects to judges who may not be familiar with their particular research subject,” Cremaschi explained. “For most of them, it is their first time presenting before a broader audience. As such, it provides invaluable experience in both preparing and delivering a research presentation that many of them will use later. Since 2019, more than 3,000 students have participated in undergraduate research and 67 percent of those students continued to graduate school.”

Despite its success, the OUR has no plans to rest on its laurels. Cremaschi wants to put Auburn’s undergraduate research program on the fast track to further success. “I think we can continue to grow this program both in terms of the number of research projects and enhancing their quality,” he concluded. “I’d like to see more students have the opportunity to conduct meaningful research all the way from the beginning of their college experience.  If we can reach that point, the OUR can really become a signature selling point for Auburn University.”