Chapter 3. Program Development
3.1 Establish clear research and educational objectives for an international REU site program
3.1.1 Know the target student audience
Identify, define and target the student audience early in the planning phase. The junior and senior years are an optimal time for undergraduates to be involved in an intensive international research experience. Set initial bounds on the target audience according to the organizational nature of the REU program. For example, a smaller single-institution REU program (i.e., one that takes its participants from a single university) in marine volcanology may realistically draw participants from a well-defined subset of departments at that school, whereas a larger REU program in a more broadly-defined field such as civil engineering will draw candidates from many different institutions and will recognize the need for different strategies in advertisement and recruiting. Important considerations in targeting the student audience include:
- expected academic background and previous research experience by program participants: Quick and effective start-up by participating students may depend on previous research experience. This previous experience comprises familiarity with essential equipment and techniques, successful completion of an independent scientific experiment, or a sound course background as preparation. The expectation of uniformity in previous academic program and the ability to evaluate reliably the academic records of student applicants are benefits for a single-institution program. Nevertheless, an open-recruitment REU program increases access to highly qualified applicants and promotes diversity within the applicant and participant populations. Even in the best case, a narrowly focused REU program with academically strong participants may still necessitate formal training by some of the students in particular areas (for example, statistics in a field ecology program or computer technology in an informatics program). Take this into account and, if required, build the necessary training into coursework or workshops as part of the program.
- scientific research expertise of foreign hosts and overall strength of the foreign host institution: A successful student research experience depends on a reasonably good balance between the degree of research focus and the breadth of scientific/engineering competence at the host site. Strike a balance between depth and breadth by selecting appropriate foreign host institutes and mentoring scholars, and then factor this into program targeting. This balance is particularly important for those students who may not have formulated precisely their personal scientific and professional career goals.
3.1.2 Set realistic scientific, educational and career-promoting objectives
Set realistic scientific, educational and career-promoting objectives to fit the nature and duration of the foreign experience. Scale individual student projects such that participants can achieve progress or results sufficient to permit analysis and reporting. These are important components of the research process. The opportunity for the student to engage in these phases, and to be able to report on his/her project at a closing symposium, adds an important sense of accomplishment.
Where possible, inject the use of new and effective strategies for improving science, mathematics, engineering and technology education at the undergraduate level. For practical ideas, consult the following two reports from the National Research Council Committee on Undergraduate Science Education:
Committee on Undergraduate Science Education 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 88 pp. ISBN 0-309-05498-2
Available on-line at:
Committee on Undergraduate Science Education 1999. Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 113 pp. ISBN 0-309-06294-2
Available on-line at:http://books.nap.edu/html/transund/
3.1.3 Focus the research component
The focus for the research component depends practically on the scientific research expertise of the project director and of the foreign hosts and the foreign host institute. Program focus will also reflect partnerships between the international REU program and domestic REU sites or research centers; complementarity and synergy are powerful influences on focus. A research focus that is well defined and circumscribed (but not overly narrow) also fosters a sense of community and identity for the student cohort.
The U.S. program organizers must possess sufficient competence within the defined area(s) to guide effectively research projects and host selection and matching. The orientation and training period before student departure to the foreign host institution is too short to include any additional academic training.
3.1.4 Strive for overall balance of international and domestic components
There are many advantages to the inclusion of domestic components in an international REU site program. For programs in which all participants represent a single home institution, use the domestic component to provide laboratory research in preparation for the foreign experience, foreign language lessons and cultural training, or other pre-trip activities. Familiarity among participants and a stronger sense of group identity result from carefully designed domestic components (even if these activities involve only American students within a bi-directional program; Section 3.1.5).
3.1.5 Seek reciprocity through bi-directional student movements
Add reciprocity to the program by receiving foreign undergraduate students. Reciprocity through bi-directional student movements in the international REU program adds value in several ways. Prior interaction with foreign students in a domestic setting builds personal familiarity and cultural sensitivity, promotes a "fast start" for participants at the international host lab, and gives other students at the home site a taste of international collaboration. Reciprocity also helps to engage the interest, efforts and resources of international counterparts.
Reciprocity demands careful timing; this is, perhaps, more easily achieved when all U.S.-side participants attend the same domestic institution (the single-institution model mentioned earlier; Section 3.1.1). If academic calendars are different at the home and foreign universities, take advantage of this asynchrony by scheduling the foreign students' visit while the home institution is in session. Regardless, reciprocity is possible in any summer program at the expense of shortened time abroad; for example, the program might comprise 4-8 weeks at a U.S. site and 3-6 weeks at the international site. The ability to achieve this "split" (and the proportion of time spent at home and abroad) may be field specific. Mathematics or theoretical science projects, or other "transportable" projects that are not limited by access to major equipment and facilities, may be more amenable to reciprocal arrangements.
Reciprocal models for international REU site programs are more challenging to design, to implement and to manage. Reciprocal programs require more resources, commitment and management time than do unidirectional programs. Incorporate some level of incremental reciprocity through:
- receiving a smaller, but representative, group of foreign students at the domestic REU site (to build familiarity);
- promoting interactions between visiting foreign students and undergraduates generally at the domestic site;
- receiving the foreign REU site director or perhaps some foreign faculty mentors at the domestic site (to build familiarity and to discuss foreign site projects); and
- incorporating joint research training programs for both U.S. and international participants prior to the start of individual research projects.
3.1.6 Link with foreign host scholars and international host institutions of quality
Since the scientific experience is central to the international REU site program, the professional expertise of foreign host scientists is critical to the achievement of program goals. Project directors can develop rosters of potential host scholars in several ways. Since self-nomination may generate a sizeable list of willing mentors, employ screening to assure that those selected to serve as mentors can provide the necessary support to visiting students. Consider these examples of screening and selection criteria: prior experience and success with student project supervision, time and accessibility for mentoring and guidance to the student, funded research program capable of supporting laboratory expenses of the student, and lecture and laboratory space to accommodate the student projects. Once a list of potential research advisors is established, impose additional criteria for matching students to hosts. Foreign research advisors with some (perhaps direct?) understanding of the U.S. educational system can be very effective in the mentoring role. Have an informed, and trusted, foreign-side program director or coordinator help evaluate host suitability during the selection and matching processes. In the end, give preference to those host scientists most capable of contributing to the intellectual development of the student and of facilitating a successful research activity. (See Sections 5.2.2 and 5.2.3.)
Selection of the proposed host institution often reflects the current international collaborative research ties of the U.S. project director, but the selected institution must nevertheless meet the program's needs. It must be of adequate size and possess sufficient facilities to support the proposed number of participants. If the program will be conducted at a single site, there must be a suitable number of host scientists available without compromising the quality of student-host matches. Some centers of excellence truly represent "international crossroads" (CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, is an example). In addition to their central research activities, these rare sites are rich in their offerings of conferences, workshops and classes. Ultimately, the international host site must be of sufficiently high quality, reputation or, for field studies, of intrinsic scientific interest to add value beyond that available at domestic hosting sites.
3.2 Build a sustainable program
3.2.1 Determine "critical mass" and optimize program size
The number and quality of potential student participants in the target audience and the number of qualified and available host scientists are powerful determinants of program size. For programs in very narrow, specialized fields it is difficult to attract more than a few (perhaps 4-6) qualified students unless eligibility is extended to students outside the domestic sponsoring institution. Similarly, it is unlikely in narrow research fields that more than a few appropriate host scientist-engineers will be located within any single foreign university. Dispersal of students to distributed foreign sites provides access to a greater number of scientific hosts, but it may then be difficult to build a sense of community among the participants, and the individual students may also feel isolated. Address these challenges by organizing all-inclusive group activities that will bring participants together; seminar meetings and site visits to special scientific facilities or natural history field sites can meet the desired objective (Section 6.6). In the case of geographically distributed host sites, consider assigning students as no less than pairs to any site. Alternatively, consider hosting the international REU program at a major research center or organization that can meet the demands of a large student program at a single site. Give careful thought to the notion of "critical mass" in development of the desired group dynamic, and do not neglect scaling effects on cost effectiveness, and on time and resources (Section 4.1.4).
3.2.2 Establish institutional commitment of participating universities, U.S. and international
Both large and small international REU site programs benefit from solid institutional commitments. At the domestic home institution, this commitment takes many forms, such as re-tasking existing secretarial or administrative support, partial release from classroom teaching responsibilities for the project director and co-director as compensation for the additional burden on personal time and resources, or financial backing to underwrite some program expenses (for example, participant allowances, pre-trip orientation expenses, and administrative support). The campus' international studies office may assist with the provision of student travel insurance, risk assessment, and contributions to a pre-trip orientation. From the perspective of the program's home institution, benefits accrue in the form of positive national and international exposure through name association with a quality undergraduate research program. Actively engage the home institution when planning international REU programs, especially if student participants will be recruited nationally and the program will include only a small number of students from the program's institutional home. Program director(s) should highlight the institutional benefits of association in order to obtain the desired level of commitment. Emphasize to the university that through "program hosting" such as this, it gains access to strong, highly qualified potential graduate students.
Foreign institutions can show their commitment to the program by facilitating important logistical arrangements, such as the provision of convenient and clean housing, meals and local transportation, facilities support for program activities (opening and closing activities), assistance in requesting visas and local permits, etc.
Formal recognition by the home and host institutions and other involved agencies is an important component in safety and security for program participants (Section 4.5.2).
3.2.3 Consider the frequency of program offering
The frequency of program offering depends strongly on the ability to fill the class (or to reach "critical mass") at regular intervals (annually or biannually, for example). Continuity is critical for becoming recognized as an outstanding international REU program and, in this regard, annual offerings are preferred in some contexts. Applicant pool size will be affected as eligibility requirements are broadened (for example, junior- or senior-level science or engineering majors) or narrowed (for example, biochemistry majors with laboratory research experience). As a result, alternate-year offerings may sometimes be the only realistic result. Faculty members need to consider the administrative burden relative to staff size, as well as their other academic and professional obligations, when determining the frequency of program offering. A faculty member may simply be too busy to devote the necessary time for preparation and execution of an annual program. Co-directorships or increased institutional commitment and support can alleviate the administrative burden placed on a single program director.
If biannual offerings are a necessity, consider reunion meetings or a domestic program in the "off" years to build and to continue a sense of "community" among alumni.
Regardless of the frequency of offering, develop a "rhythm" for the program. Prospective applicants, alumni and faculty mentors can anticipate the program cycle and prepare or advise confidently. Program staff will regularize their seasonal workload planning.
3.2.4 Set a realistic expectation for longevity
Long-term funding from a sponsoring agency cannot be assured, even under the best of circumstances. Strive for diversity in funding support to assure an enduring program. International projects are frequently eligible for funding from international foundations if foreign students are involved. In addition to reducing reliance on a single agency, multiple sponsorships provide flexibility through a robust program budget and add independence from fiscal year considerations under single-agency funding (viz., conflict between the program's spending cycle and end-of-cycle spend out for the funding award, or delays in renewal funding). Should the institutional benefits be great enough, universities may be inclined to underwrite an international REU site program at a higher level to assure its continuation. Additionally, private funds from companies in relevant fields are an available option to strengthen the funding base. In this regard, evaluation and reporting (Section 7.2) and publicity and promotion (Section 5.1.1) become critically important.
Chapter 4 - Program Planning
Last updated July, 2002