BOX 7.1 History Leading Up to the Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program
A bit of history may put the Research Experiences for Undergraduates(REU) program in perspective. After Sputnik made Americans focus again on what it might take to maintain the technological and scientific leadership enjoyed during and immediately after World War II, many projects were initiated to strengthen the quality of science education At the same time, the National Science Foundation established a program that would enable undergraduates to enhance their science education in the major. This was the URP or Undergraduate Research Program, which provided funding for students to spend a summer in active research laboratories, often away from the home campus. The locations where students went—usually at research universities—were termed project sites Typically to students were supported at each project site for 10 weeks. This program was very active throughout the 1960s and 1970s. For example, I remember that during the late 1702s when I administered our project in the University of Kansas chemistry department we also had projects in the biochemistry department, the chemical engineering department, and the medicinal chemistry department just on our one campus. It was highly organized at the NSF, with uniform application deadlines and starting and ending dates across the country it was generally thought that the program was a worthwhile way to introduce young scientists to the kind of practical experience that might allow them to make a rational career decision. Nevertheless, this program was one of the first casualties after the national elections of 1980.
By the mid-1990s them was much alarm at the decrease in the numbers of young people going into science careers. For example, data gathered by the American Chemical Society showed a 25 percent decline in graduation of B.S.-level chemists during the early 1980s, and the National Science Foundation was given the so-ahead from Congress to come up with plans to help counteract this trend. What emerged was a new program. Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU. Again, stipends were provided to students so that they could enjoy full-time commitment to research during the summer months at research sites. There were some noticeable differences from the older URP program. Sites were considerably more autonomous and given scope to tailor their programs to suit their calendar and likely participants. Deadline dates varied Some programs ran for 6 weeks, some for 10. Some programs focused on one area of chemistry only—for example, materials science or nuclear chemistry; some on particular target groups, such as women or Native Americans. In all cases, underrepresented minorities and women were clearly encouraged to apply and often actively recruited.
Does undergraduate research make a difference? To whom does it make a difference? From what point of view? I will look at this question successively from the point of view of the discipline, the profession, the nation, and the student. Let us begin with the discipline of chemistry.
If I had asked, for example, "Does organic chemistry (in the undergraduate curriculum) make a difference, and what is the evidence for that in the last 100 years?," you would, of course, think the question ludicrous and the answer obvious. The answer, I think, is equally obvious with respect to undergraduate research. Chemistry as an undergraduate discipline clearly has two components—one of content and one of method. It is a body of knowledge (complete with concepts, symbols, and facts)