PURE helps undergraduates gain research experience

ECE News

Jamal Collier, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • PURE helps young and enthusiastic undergraduate students get hands-on research experience.
  • PURE is open to ECE and CS students and is funded by Rockwell Collins.
  • PURE works by pairing undergraduates with grad students who serve as mentors, and involve them in research happening withing their research groups.

Young and enthusiastic college students can get involved in a program called PURE, which stands for Promoting Undergraduate Research in Engineering. This program allows students to get hands-on research experience as undergraduates.

PURE bridges the gap between the faculty, upperclassmen, and graduate students working on research and the underclassmen who want to get started. Craig Roper, the president of PURE, said the group goes out and finds graduate students willing to take on a sophomore or freshman as a mentee.

Zach Widder, a sophomore in electrical engineering, got involved in the program this past fall. Although he was nervous meeting his mentor at first, the process ended up working out well.

“He wound up being a very cool person that I definitely use a resource for not just research, but for help with some of my classwork and advice for things like career fairs,” Widder said.

PURE is also responsible for informing the mentees of exactly what they're getting into before they take on a project like this one.

"One of the biggest things we’re doing is making sure all the mentees know what they're getting into, know what the time commitment is going to be like, what the work is going to be like," Roper said. "Because of that, the last couple semesters we’ve had very positive reviews, and the mentors say all their students have been great.”

After the mentees are selected, they fill out a survey to gauge their interest and find out what classes they've taken. Mentees also choose their top two projects, and mentors take on anywhere from one to four students a semester.

PURE started out specific to the ECE Department, but has since branched out to become part of the Computer Science Department. Roper is a senior in CS.

The group held a symposium in December to show off some of the research and other things they've accomplished. Roper worked in conjunction with the ECE and CS departments to provide food and refreshments. 

“It was kind of cool to tell people about what I had been doing for a few months,” said Widder of the symposium. He is working on the North American Thermosphere-Ionosphere Network for his project. “My part in the project has been analyzing a vast data set and trying to find a temperature threshold between when the sky is cloudy and when it is clear.”

For the past two years, PURE has received funding from Rockwell Collins.

"This allowed us to start supporting mentors and subsequently increased graduate student interest in the program. Because there are now more mentors, we can accommodate more mentees, which is the whole point of PURE,” said Albert Liao (MSEE ’08, PhD ’12), a recent graduate who is currently pursuing a postdoc at MIT. While at Illinois he spent time advising PURE, serving as a graduate mentor, and as a committee member.

He said the program is just as beneficial for graduate students because it gives them the opportunity to mentor somebody who is “relatively unfamiliar with their field yet highly intelligent.”

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