American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January/February 2020
Volume 
48
Issue 
1

NSF’s REU Program Provides Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

Five Current NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates Sites Are Led or Co-Led by Sociologists

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by NSF. Through its REU Sites program, NSF funds a large number of research opportunities for undergraduate students. At an REU Site, a group of 10 or so undergraduates work in the research programs of a host institution, where the students work closely with the faculty and other researchers. Students are granted stipends and, in many cases, assistance with housing and travel.

NSF believes that “research experience is one of the most effective avenues for attracting students to and retaining them in science and engineering and for preparing them for careers in these fields.” 

Overall, REU sites provide NSF an opportunity to tap into the nation’s diverse student talent pool and broaden participation in the science disciplines that the organization supports. As NSF is particularly interested in increasing the numbers of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in research, REU projects are encouraged to involve students who are members of these groups—as well as U.S. armed forces veterans and first-generation college students.

There are currently five REU sites that are led or co-led by a sociology faculty member on the principal investigator team: Texas A&M University (Mary Campbell and Alex Hernandez), the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Kirk Dombrowski and Bilal Khan), the University of Texas at Austin (Shannon Cavanagh and Cynthia Osborne), Western Washington University (Seth Feinberg and Hilary Schwandt), and the University of Wisconsin-Stout (David Ferguson, Nels Paulson, and Arthur Kneeland). REU sites may be based in a single discipline or academic department or may offer interdisciplinary or multi-department research opportunities with a coherent theme. The work can be carried out during the summer, during the academic year, or both. 

Texas A&M’s REU project goes back nearly three decades with almost continuous renewal, according to Campbell and Hernandez. Entitled “Research Institute in Sociology and Social Inequality,” their overarching aim is to provide an important initial gateway for students to consider a social science graduate degree (especially in sociology). The application process at every REU site is extremely competitive—Texas A&M received 280 applications last year for 10 student slots—but Campbell and Hernandez say they are “always looking for new outreach avenues, which include minority-serving institutions as well as institutions in different parts of the country.” They also have reached out to several other REU sites to compare notes as well as jointly plan workshops encouraging other investigators to consider building an REU application.

According to NSF, REU projects “feature high-quality interaction of students with faculty and/or other research mentors and access to appropriate facilities and professional development opportunities.” NSF encourages continued interaction of these mentors with students during the academic year to help connect students’ research experiences to their overall course of study. Campbell and Hernandez said that one of the more poignant aspects of the Texas A&M REU project is “to connect students and their varied research interests to faculty mentors and graduate students who share similar personal backgrounds—and therefore pair people to talk about and analyze important social problems.”

The REU project titles for the other four sites noted above include “Social Network Analysis for Solving Minority Health Disparities” (U. of Nebraska); “Undergraduate Research in Race, Ethnicity and Family Demography” (UT-Austin); “Multidisciplinary Training in Quantitative Methods” (Western Washington U.); and “Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability” (UW-Stout).  

Students can find opportunities in the subject areas supported by various NSF units by using the “Search for an REU Site” web page. Students must contact the individual sites for information and application materials.

For information on applying to become an NSF REU site, visit www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5517. The next proposal deadline is August 26. 2020.