The year 2012 marks the 10th year that the UNL Department of Mathematics has hosted a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Applied Mathematics. UNL is one of only 68 summer applied mathematics REU sites funded by the National Science Foundation at a higher education institution in the U.S.
The Nebraska REU in Applied Mathematics is an eight-week summer research opportunity for eight to 10 students. Over the past 10 years, since the NSF began funding it in 2002, UNL has been through three renewals and has applied for a fourth.
Students have an opportunity to work in a team environment to endeavor to answer an open-ended problem; learn to problem solve in new ways; and learn from the experience of professors with whom they have not yet worked. Students who participate in this REU program not only gain an academic advantage, but also benefit by receiving room, board and travel expenses in addition to $4,000 in monetary rewards.
“For many students, this is the first time in their collegiate experience that they have had an opportunity like this,” said Professor Gordon Woodward.
Mathematics research experiences at UNL are competitive with other REUs throughout the country, due primarily to the high caliber of UNL’s faculty mentors. Some projects that students have worked on over the past few years include: Reconstruction Problems in Graph Theory (Professor Stephen Hartke), Differential/Difference Equations (Professor Allan Peterson), and Stabilization of Underactuated Mechanical Systems (Professor Mikil Foss). This experience is a great way for students from other colleges and universities to test drive the university to see if it will be a good fit for further study in graduate programs.
With approximately 100-120 students applying for this program in the past year, less than 10 percent of the students who apply have a chance to take part in this competitive opportunity.
UNL also offers two other competitive opportunities for undergraduate research experiences to mathematics students: Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences (UCARE) and senior thesis projects. UNL students are encouraged to take advantage of summer REU programs at other institutions to gain another perspective or are further encouraged to do UCARE or a thesis project.
The UCARE project is a unique opportunity funded by the Pepsi Endowment that enables UNL students to work in a 1:1 ratio with the supervision of a faculty member on a research project for up to two years. This research experience is roughly double the length of the summer program in terms of hours worked on a particular problem and allows the students individual time to work with a professor whom they choose and on a problem or model which they have selected. This program also offers monetary gain for students, up to a maximum of $4,400, allowing them the gift of time to spend on their research. The university reported in 2012 that for the first time the UCARE program was included among the 28 best university programs in undergraduate research and creative projects.
Writing a thesis presents UNL students yet another opportunity during which they have the chance to consult with a faculty advisor 1:1 in producing a paper on their research findings. If the research is of high-enough caliber, students may seek to have papers published in undergraduate journals.
Woodward said the most lasting benefits mathematics students receive from research experiences at UNL are the opportunities to pose new questions and to endeavor to answer fully or in part questions that have not yet been answered.