UROP: Providing Opportunities for Undergraduates to Take Risks (Strategically)

Neil Armstrong once said “Research is creating new knowledge” but what about creating new disciplines? Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research has never been more alive at UCI, expanding our understanding of the world like never before.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) promotes students’ academic and future success through partnerships between the campus and the community. This mission is reflected in the first goal of the strategic plan: To provide opportunities for undergraduates to take risks strategically and to achieve their potential as members of their communities.

The objectives in supporting this goal are:

Create opportunities for students to appreciate and tell their own stories.
Encourage students to develop resilience and flexibility.
Foster experiences for students to reimagine collectively the future.

To showcase how this strategic goal plays out on campus, we recently sat down with Said Shokair, Founding Director of UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), to talk about how UROP supports and facilitates different stages of faculty-mentored research or creative activities.

So how many students and faculty does UROP engage annually?

It’s actually one of the largest undergraduate research programs in the country with close to 2,500 students and more than 450 faculty mentors engaged through various UROP-sponsored programs. Close to 1,200 students showcased their projects at last year’s Symposium.

Wow that’s a lot of passion on campus! How does UROP help spark that student passion?

Our approach is to help students identify their interests, engage the appropriate faculty mentor, and make a commitment to further expand their knowledge and develop critical skills for a competitive profile that will allow them to make informed decisions for their future. They are not here to simply satisfy degree requirements.

How do students initially get involved with UROP?

We’re really easy to reach! Students can stop by or email us, or fill out the online interest form. We’re happy to meet with students one-on-one or in workshops — basically, we are here to be of service to them. Students are encouraged to submit proposals to us and seek recognition and funding for project expenses or their time and efforts.

What do you hope students will get out of the UROP experience?

The core of our mission is to help students maximize the benefits of being at a top research university, where they engage the research process and enjoy the successes and learn from the failures. Ultimately, to be well-positioned to launch into a successful future.

How diverse are the student projects supported by UROP? How do they reflect student demographics (like majors and schools)?

There isn’t a discipline on campus that isn’t included in our program. This year quite a few projects were mentored by faculty from the biomedical/biological sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and engineering. But opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research are available in all disciplines, including the arts and humanities. The bottom line is that we’re inclusive. We encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects, and we maximize diversity on all fronts. Close to 24% of UROP participants are Hispanic, and 45% of them are first generation students.

It’s great to hear more evidence that first generation students really succeed here at UCI. Did the level of participation meet or exceed expectations this year?

Every year is a record compared to the year before with an average growth rate of 12-15% annually. This increased rate of student and faculty participation attests to our ability to improve the quality and overall student experience at UCI.

What were some of the more exciting projects?

There were so many really, and they were all so great. They covered all disciplines from choreographed dance pieces to social behavior projects to applied engineering and design. Some of interesting projects also involved lab environments using animal models.

That’s awesome! Where would we go to see all these amazing projects?

They’re available on the Symposium website. It’s a great archive of our students’ innovation and ingenuity. Let me also take the opportunity to invite the UCI Community to join us at this year’s Symposium, to be held on May19, 2018.

Who comes to the Annual Symposium in person?

Families, students, mentors, research collaborators, community members, alumni, and potential anteaters. Then we have CEOs, foundation members — it’s really becoming a hub of research, collaboration, celebration, and networking.

Why do you think so?

Well UROP showcases points of pride here at UCI. The bottom line is that the university would not exist without its faculty and students, so when you’re able to showcase the collaboration between them, there isn’t anything better than that.

People are consistently impressed by the symposium and the sophistication of the projects. How is UROP changing the world around us?

We want every student to go beyond their coursework and ask themselves how to apply what they have learned in the classroom. What’s most exciting to me is that UROP projects often break disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinary research is what leads to new disciplines over time. So they’re not only changing their communities but the landscape of our university. It’ll be great to see the impact UROP’s research will make in the next 10, 20, 50 years.

Learn more about UROP by visiting http://www.urop.uci.edu/.