Experiential learning is a critical component of STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) education and career training. The College of Science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale aims to ensure that every science major who wants an opportunity for mentored, independent research gets one.

The college takes pride in the large number of students participating in capstone research opportunities in various laboratories. For many science students, such opportunities can even begin in the first semester of their freshman year. For example, 10 to 20 CHEM 200 honors students are matched up each fall with laboratory research opportunities throughout the college, particularly in chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology and physics. Zoology majors are introduced to research and independent study during sophomore year.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates: Every year, the college hosts a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in the area of interdisciplinary materials research. Currently in its 14th year of operation, this National Science Foundation-funded program hosts an average of 14 students each summer in research labs in chemistry and biochemistry, physics and microbiology, along with several Engineering faculty.

Besides SIU Carbondale students, this program primarily recruits students from two- and four-year institutions without major research opportunities, including those from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM. While the program’s primary goal is to increase the number of U.S. students pursuing STEM careers (and boasts that three-fourths of its former participants are on that track), several have returned to complete their BS, MS, or Ph.D. degrees at SIU.

Our students often participate in a number of other externally supported opportunities, including internships with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

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Joining a community of scholars: By participating in independent research, students learn to think critically and solve problems — often as part of a larger team. Many receive training to use state-of-the-art instrumentation within their mentors’ laboratories or on centrally located research facilities and at federal laboratories.

Many student researchers gain research experiences as volunteers, for academic credit, or with financial support through faculty grants. Some students also fund their own research through competitive grants such as the REACH (Research Enriched Academic Challenge) award. Importantly, many students publicly present their research at local, national, or international conferences and “society” meetings. Some students travel abroad and collaborate internationally (with recent destinations including the United Kingdom, Russia and Antarctica), and others even become co-authors on major peer-reviewed publications — highly coveted achievements.

Joy of discovery: Most importantly, research allows students to participate in the joy of discovery — finding something new.

Most recently, under the mentorship of Professor Scott Hamilton-Brehm, microbiology senior Amanda Blocker is working to characterize an entirely new type of microbe, a thermophilic (“heat-loving”) bacteria dubbed “SIUC-1”. Research experience also provides our students a competitive advantage for admission to graduate schools, professional schools (e.g. medical) and/or STEM career opportunities. Indeed, one of our seniors, chemistry major Madison McMinn, was just awarded a highly-competitive graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

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Meera Komarraju is the interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.


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