Since 2009, the Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering has coordinated Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internships for STEM majors from across the United States. The programs are centered around “engi-preneurship,” a term coined by the department chair, Dr. Okenwa Okoli to combine the important experiences of engineering and entrepreneurship.
The 2019 Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) was sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering (RISE), Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) and Targeted Infusion Project (TIP) grants.
“It’s good to see how the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is including undergraduate students in a meaningful way in their research activities, many of which are funded by the Division of Human Resource Development at NSF,” said Claudia Rankins, an NSF program director. “This REU program teaches undergraduates vital engineering and entrepreneurship skills, preparing them for further study or the workforce. The FAMU-FSU Engineering faculty have been leaders in ensuring that the future engineering workforce is diverse by including students from historically disenfranchised populations.”
Undergraduate participants from far away as California and New York and were selected from 105 applicants from around the nation. The interns began with an intensive two-week orientation process and conducted research over a 10-week period. Ron Frazier of the Jim Moran Institute and Mike Devine, the Entrepreneur in Residence at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, coordinated weekly seminars to develop the participants’ entrepreneurship skills.
The 12 REU participants competed in a two-round hybrid business/research pitch and a poster presentation. Kori Quillion of Tuskegee University and Chantal Warner of the University of Buffalo, both juniors, earned top honors of first and second place, respectively. Bryana Beckford, a chemical engineering major from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering took third. Paul Dinh, a Florida State University undergraduate earned an honorable mention.
“Leading up to this program, I was a little intimidated because I did not have much engineering experience,” Quillion said. “My goal for the summer was simply to be a sponge for knowledge and learn as much as I could, to better myself as a STEM student. Not only did I enhance my knowledge of material science and engineering, I also learned about entrepreneurship and how to apply my research to create a product that will advance the biomedical field. This program has given me a new confidence in myself and my abilities.”
FAMU-FSU Engineering associate professor Tarik Dickens, the current REU Director and Principal Investigator, hopes this is a sign of things to come, as he recognizes the nation is in critical need of scientist who can think outside-the-box and engineer solutions for the entire globe.
“We have tried very hard over the past few years to provide a unique research and educational experience for undergraduate students,” Dickens explained. “This is an effort to help young pre-degree engineers feel welcomed to the STEM research community. Our hope and goal is that these students take this experience and strongly consider matriculating to graduate programs of their interest. Our NSF and department REU program accomplishes this by getting STEM students to think about the research in terms of scalable entrepreneurial pursuits.”
The REU culminated in a two-round “engi-preneurial” competition, where outside judges evaluated student presentations. This year’s judges were Johnathan Adams, Ph.D., of the James Madison Institute, and Emily Pritchard, Ph.D. and Cesar Rodriguez, Ph.D., both from the FSU College of Medicine. Rebekah Sweat, Ph.D., at the time of the Florida Office of Economic Vitality, was also a part of the judging team. She joined the industrial and manufacturing faculty at FAMU-FSU Engineering as an assistant professor in August 2019.
“This year was truly an outstanding group to judge,” Pritchard said. “The students’ summer research and entrepreneurial pitches demonstrated a high level of engineering rigor combined with market-driven innovation. This program attracts the best and brightest to Tallahassee and fosters a powerful combination of skills that will benefit them immensely as their careers progress. The high caliber of the program makes it easy to brag about.”
The High-Performance Materials Institute, where Dickens and Okoli have engineering labs, has hosted the program since 2009. Over this time, almost 200 undergraduate interns have participated in internships at the center, including the NSF and Air Force Research Lab REU programs. The majority of the participants have continued on to STEM graduate programs or are now employed in a STEM-related field.