Published: Sept. 16, 2016
Stacked Air Quality monitoring boxes in Mike Hannigan's lab.

Tanya Schulz (MechEngr ’17) is thinking small, very small, so small you can't see it with a microscope small. She’s spent her summer researching nanotechnology. It's the kind of work that requires a super computer and you might think is reserved only for post-doctoral students, but Schulz is a mechanical engineering senior taking part in CU Boulder’s Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, or SPUR.

Hands on research is a CU Engineering staple, but SPUR is a special initiative that gives students the chance to dive into research headfirst in a ten-week program working every day.

"It was one of the most meaningful experiences I've had during my time at CU. It reinforced my desire to pursue graduate studies," says Schulz.

Katelin Verploeg (MechEngr ‘17) had a similar time in SPUR, although her research wasn't quite so small. She was paired with an air-quality lab, tasked with analyzing field data and testing new monitoring equipment.

"Initially I thought I would never do research, that this would be fun for the summer and that's all, but now I'm thinking about graduate school," says Verploeg.

Making The Program Happen

Verploeg’s experience is exactly what Sharon Anderson, extracurricular programs manager for the College of Engineering and Applied Science, was hoping for in organizing and pursuing funding for SPUR.

"Research can be really life-changing for the kids," says Anderson.

Typically, money for lab assistants is reserved for master’s and PhD students, but Anderson received funding for a unique summer program just for undergrads. Outside the pressures of the normal academic calendar, the initiative gave students a chance to really engage in the research.

“With classes and playing on the hockey team, I don’t have time to do research during the school year,” says Verploeg.

Real World Lessons

The time she spent in the lab also gave her a chance to apply her coursework to a real-world environment.

"I saw the point of all of it. At first I was sitting at a computer all day, but once you start seeing the results, it's not just numbers anymore. It means something," Verploeg says.

Schulz agreed.

"The project required me to apply heat transfer concepts, and now I understand why they're important how they apply to the real world," says Schultz.

To fellow participant Rebecca Bullard (MechEngr ‘18), SPUR was a chance to explore research and gain valuable skills that go beyond engineering.

"I learned how to analyze data and write a report that explains my findings. At the end of the program we all presented our findings, which was a good opportunity to practice presenting my research in a professional and supportive setting,” Bullard says.

For some of the students, the end of the program won't be the end of the research.

"I was asked to continue on with the lab," says Verploeg. "I’m excited and can’t wait to gain more hands-on experience."