The Congressional Research Service stated in 2009 that the U.S. faces a challenge in developing STEM graduates equipped to meet the demands of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research. An increasingly important element of this work involves experimentally relevant computation and simulation, meaning that our future engineers and scientists will likely be required to use advanced simulations to solve many of tomorrow's challenges. In order to prepare students to meet this need, the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN) provides simulation-focused research experiences for undergraduates at an early point in their educational path. It has been shown that participation in undergraduate research significantly increases the likelihood that a student will ultimately complete a doctoral program.
The NCN summer research program currently serves over 20 undergraduate students per year who are recruited nationwide, selected by NCN and the faculty for aptitude in their chosen field, as well as complementary skills such as coding and written communication. Under the guidance of graduate student and faculty mentors, undergraduates modify or build nanoHUB simulation tools for exploring interdisciplinary problems in materials science and engineering, and related fields. NCN is an NSF-funded project that developed and operates nanoHUB.org, an open-access science gateway for cloud-based simulation tools and resources for research and education in nanoscale science and technology.
While the summer projects exist within an overarching research context, the specific tasks that NCN undergraduate students engage in range from modifying existing tools to building new tools for nanoHUB and using them to conduct original research. It is important to note that the simulation tool development takes place within nanoHUB, using its workspace, computational clusters, and additional training and educational resources. One objective of the program is for the students to publish their simulation tools on nanoHUB. These tools can be accessed and executed freely from around the world using a standard web browser; thus students can remain engaged with their work beyond the summer and into their careers. We will describe the NCN model for undergraduate summer research, which includes: 1) recruitment and selection of a diverse group of participants; 2) support and training given to mentors; 3) mentoring and training given to undergraduates; 4) enrichment activities; 5) enhancing conceptual knowledge of, and interest in nanotechnology and simulation; and 6) impacting students’ career path choices. Through this model, students gain valuable research experience, mentoring, and peer support that contribute to both their educational and career development. We believe that our model is one that can be adopted by other universities, and will discuss the potential for others to engage undergraduate students in simulation- based research using free nanoHUB resources.