Six grants from the Office of Undergraduate Research create new work and learning opportunities for students
Last year, the Office of Undergraduate Research awarded almost $50,000 in grants to faculty from five colleges with the goal of increasing the opportunities for Virginia Tech students to gain valuable work and research experience.
“Participating in research and experiential learning can be a transformative part of a student’s education,” said Keri Swaby, director of undergraduate research at Virginia Tech. “But we know there’s a limit to the number who can participate in the traditional one-on-one mentorships, so the goal of this grant program is to support our faculty as they find creative ways to expand these opportunities for more of our students.”
The grants created a wide range of opportunities, from exploring the video game Minecraft as a teaching tool to creating training materials for researchers working with marginalized communities. More than 70 students participated with the aim that faculty will be able to scale up programs to include more undergrads in the future.
It’s the fourth year the funds have been offered. The recipients were Benjamin Chambers (College of Engineering); Natalie Ferand (College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences); Kevin Hamed and Robert Bush (College of Natural Resources and Environment); Najla Mouchrek (Honors College), Nathan Todd King and Emily Jean Vollmer (Office of Sustainability); Frederick Paige (College of Engineering) and Craig Arthur (University Libraries); and Andrew Schaudt (Pamplin College of Business).
After a year of project design and research, three grant recipients shared the new programs they created and how their work helped prepare students for their careers and added depth to their experience at Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) is nationally recognized for its work on road safety and automated vehicles, but it’s also an operating business with 300 employees and millions of dollars in public and private contracts.
That work creates huge amounts of data that needs to be tracked and interpreted to inform decisions by engineers and staff, providing an ideal learning opportunity for students from the Pamplin College of Business.
“There aren’t many opportunities for business students to meaningfully participate in undergraduate research at Virginia Tech,” said Andy Schaudt, chief of staff at VTTI and assistant professor of practice in the Department of Management. “Effective project management is a critical part of research and our interns have the opportunity to make valuable contributions to VTTI and explore a viable career path.”
To help meet that need and create new opportunities for business majors, VTTI created the Project Management and Business Analytics in Transportation Internship with the support of a grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research.
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is one of the university's seven research institutes and works through government and private partnerships to inform public policy and improve safety on the country’s roads. The institute operates the Virginia Smart Road, a closed-testing facility that has allowed researchers to conduct more than 30,000 hours of research since it opened in 2000. VTTI also houses almost 90 percent of the naturalistic driving data in the world, the majority of which is through a contract with the National Academy of Sciences.
The internship is a partnership between VTTI and the Pamplin College of Business and part of a broader effort to enhance the institute's project management capabilities to support researchers with the administrative load associated with their work.
“Our researchers are all really smart and talented engineers and we want them to spend their time helping our customers by answering their research questions,” said Matthew Casadonte, program manager at VTTI’s Division of Data and Analytics. “The data our interns work with is integral to how we operate as a business and the backbone of this whole system.”
During the spring semester, the interns tracked labor and budgets and made presentations using data visualization software such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau to inform resource allocation.
“We’re giving them an opportunity to sit in on meetings and see how we execute our projects and work with real data,” said Casadonte. “This isn’t just an assignment, they’re part of the real-life operation of a $50 million per year research institute
The interns each worked 10 hours per week for 14 weeks with their wages paid through the Office of Undergraduate Research grant.
“When we started here, we helped develop one of the systems to allocate the time and effort employees are putting into each project,” said Rithika Khanna, a rising junior double majoring in business information technology and management. “I didn’t realize we would start this internship doing something so useful, and I found it really motivating to be able to work on something that would have such an impact.”
“The faith that they had in us to help start this program really pushed us to see what we can accomplish,” said Khanna. “It’s an experience I never would have gotten without this internship.”
The program will likely continue at VTTI, pending the securing of funding.
“Through the classes I’ve taken at Pamplin, I receive a lot of great information that I’ll carry forward in my career, but what I really value about this internship is the real-world application and the first-hand experience of being in a corporate setting,” said Sarah Jackson, a rising senior majoring in management consulting and analytics. “In the future, I know I’ll have more confidence because of the experience of this internship.”
College of Natural Resources and Environment
For wildlife conservation majors, there are a lot of research opportunities but they are not always paid positions, which can prevent a lot of students from being able to participate. One grant recipient - a partnership between two programs in the College of Natural Resources and Environment - aims to help counter that trend with a research project focused on the nearby national forest.
“The beauty of the grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research is that it removes that barrier,” said Kevin Hamed, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “This field has been historically dominated by men, particularly white men, and by creating a paid internship we hope to expand access for a broader range of our students to do this kind of field work.”
Beginning last fall, the grant paid for research equipment, transportation, a video camera, and the wages for four students.
“I was looking for a way to get into the field and do conservation projects,” said Madeline Alt, a rising senior from Leesburg, Virginia, majoring in wildlife conservation. “And this internship allows me to do that.”
The research looks at how trash, specifically glass bottles, are trapping and killing small mammals, such as the northern short-tailed shrew, in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forest near Blacksburg. The problem has been well documented elsewhere on public land in the southern United States and in Europe.
“Not many people think about shrews, but they’re eaten by a lot of animals that people really care about like foxes and raptors,” said Hamed. “If we can find a way to prevent the litter people leave in the national forest from killing them, we’d be helping wildlife across the landscape.”
Every ecosystem is built on important prey species (think: krill in the ocean), and in the southern Appalachian Mountains, these small rodents are an important link in the food chain. Researchers elsewhere have found more than 50 skulls in a single bottle.
And despite their obscurity, the shrews are strange, fascinating animals. They have a rapid metabolism that requires them to eat - mostly grubs, worms, and occasionally smaller vertebrates - up to two times their body weight every day. While hunting or evading a larger predator, a shrew’s heart rate can spike to 1,200 beats per minute. During its short, 10-to-15-month lifespan, a female can give birth to two or three litters of pups.
They’re also the only venomous mammal in North America. Their saliva contains a toxin that, along with oversized incisors, allows them to grab and paralyze their prey.
“Their eating habits are something out of a horror movie, the venom allows them to paralyze their prey and cache it while it’s still alive in a shrew’s den,” said Hamed. “They’re impressive little predators.”
The first step of the study was to survey the Poverty Creek Road which runs through U.S. Forest Service land about 10 miles northwest of Blacksburg. There, Hamed, along with four students, found 100 glass bottles with nine carcasses of trapped shrews.
Multiplied across the hundreds of miles of roads in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest it could represent a significant loss of wildlife and “calories taken out of the ecosystem,” said Hamed.
The group then trapped 10 wild shrews from the Virginia Tech Center Woods on the Blacksburg campus and housed them at an aviary used by College of Natural Resources and Environment researchers. The small rodents were kept for seven days and placed in glass tanks designed by Robert Bush, an internationally recognized packaging expert in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
The tanks allowed researchers to adjust the angle of the floor and test what kinds of glass the shrews could climb and escape. In the next phase of the study, students from packaging systems and design will watch video from the tests and try to design beverage containers that won’t trap rodents.
“This is intended as a pilot project which ideally we’d be able to continue aftering finding outside funding through a corporation or private foundation,” said Hamed. “Ultimately, the goal would be a wildlife-friendly certification for bottles that could reduce the loss of wildlife.”
The Honors Culture of Sustainability Lab
When people don’t act in accordance with their beliefs, social scientists call this disconnect the “value-action gap,” and it’s been applied to everything from why people make certain purchases or how the growing understanding of a social issue doesn’t change people’s actions.
This concept is often used as a lens to examine attitudes toward climate change, and that complex mix of community belief and behavior was the focus of research on campus last semester by Najla Mouchrek and her students in the Honors Culture of Sustainability Lab.
“The idea was to create that course that could both teach our students about sustainability and help them acquire the skills to do research,” said Mouchrek, a collegiate assistant professor in the Honors College. “Their work also allowed them to use their majors and academic backgrounds to investigate a large, societal problem while providing an opportunity to engage with their peers, both as researchers and members of the same community, which was really powerful.”
With the support of a grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research, nine students representing 11 majors and six minors surveyed more than 700 people on the Blacksburg campus. They found that while students overwhelmingly believe in the threat climate change poses to the planet, they felt overwhelmed by changing habits or where to start. Industry, not consumers, was also singled out for creating environmental harm.
“I was interested in the technical part of this project,” said Sean Murray, a rising-senior majoring in environmental data science. “Data doesn’t mean anything if you can’t effectively present it to the right audience, which is why this course was so valuable.”
The survey results were then provided to the university’s Office of Sustainability and as a “white paper” for the committee working on the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment, which aims for a carbon neutral campus by 2030.
To meet those goals will mean wide-reaching changes for the community - like switching the power source of the university’s steam plant and limiting the number of cars on campus - and student buy-in will be an important piece of the process.
“One of the goals of Virginia Tech’s new Climate Action Commitment is to reduce barriers to sustainable behavior on campus,” said Nathan King, sustainability program manager at Virginia Tech who participated in the course. “In order to do that successfully, we have to assess current campus attitudes, values, and beliefs around sustainability. This research helps us better understand what is fueling or shaping our culture of sustainability.”
For several students, the class and research changed their career paths.
“My major is national security, so this work was a real departure, but it’s been really informative,” said Lauren Maunder, a rising senior and research fellow at the Hume Center. “I’m planning on going to law school and this course has helped me decide to go into environmental law.”
“What we’re learning here will hopefully impact university policy. I haven’t seen an opportunity like this anywhere else on campus,” she said.
Mouchrek said she plans to continue the group’s work. Last semester, the grant paid the wages for interns from the class to prepare data, purchased a laptop computer, and printed posters for the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference in April.
This fall, the research team will present at an international sustainability conference. The remaining funds will be used for the cost of publishing a journal paper or travel to a regional undergraduate research conference.
More information about the Office of Undergraduate Research, including applications for upcoming faculty grants, can be found online at research.undergraduate.vt.edu.