What is IMMERSE?
IMMERSE is a multi-year undergraduate research program designed to foster real-world engineering leadership skills in promising students of all backgrounds. Its strengths are in its breadth and depth of training, efficient deployment of faculty resources, and long-term cultivation of research skills.
At the heart of IMMERSE’s innovation is its approach to undergraduate research. IMMERSE can be distinguished from other prominent undergraduate research programs by three distinct traits: a multi-year commitment between students and faculty members; a unified and extensive summer training curriculum; and a substantial “broader impact” component. The aim is to not only expose undergraduates to research but to create researchers out of undergraduates. IMMERSE coordinates several factors that enhance students’ engineering abilities, such as hands-on research experience alongside graduate students and faculty; communication and cooperation skills developed within research groups; and confidence and fluency in presenting and understanding technical work. The result for a student is an incomparable blend of personal growth and connection to a breadth of research practices and problem-solving.
IMMERSE students are hired early in their undergraduate careers, typically entering the program with at least two summers remaining before graduation. The duration of their tenure as IMMERSE students allows greater maturation of research abilities and opportunities to mentor less-experienced peers as they progress in the program. New students spend much of their first year acquiring the necessary skills and background to contribute to their project. In their second year, students are prepared to fully contribute to their project and mentor newer IMMERSE students. While other formalized undergraduate research programs, such as NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates programs, provide invaluable student experiences through a 10-12 week experience during a single summer, the multi-year IMMERSE participation and commitment provide opportunities to conducting publishable, impactful research. IMMERSE is designed to not only allow students to participate more meaningfully in research but to foster the drive and commitment required to perform impactful research as they progress in their engineering careers.
During their two (or more) summers in the IMMERSE program, students participate in a uniform training curriculum called the Deep Dive which is designed to broaden their exposure to research practices. This training instills fundamentals but also connects students to faculty outside of their research project. IMMERSE students present their research to their peers and learn from them in turn. Students develop their ability to share and interpret a diverse spectrum of on-going, genuine research problems. Regular meetings and interactions with their undergraduate research peers provide important comradery and support. As they build comfort and confidence, mature IMMERSE students naturally take on leadership roles within this community and set a tone of professionalism that newer students emulate.
Another essential element of the IMMERSE experience is termed “Engineering Broader Impact.” In addition to their research project, each student devotes 10-15% of their summer working hours to engaging projects designed to build confidence, raise appreciation of the real-world value of engineering, and contribute to the engineering education of others. Projects vary, but include:
- Developing online resources for classes, such as the extensive reference information available at cleanroom.byu.edu and photonics.byu.edu, or teaching aids such as the junior-level laboratory exercises now part of BYU’s ECE department curriculum.
- Developing demonstrations and lab tours used to promote engineering awareness. Examples include Engineering Week displays and a program to educate and recruit underrepresented minority students.
- Developing community outreach programs, such as an annual summer camp for 160 middle-school students. During the two weeks of Chip Camp, IMMERSE students run all activities and serve as counselors.
The long-term objectives for IMMERSE students are to publish and continue in post-graduate research. These goals are prioritized as key ingredients for students to become leading contributors to engineering. However, the program is also designed to encourage leadership at all levels of competence and training. Developing engineers are encouraged to mentor and serve their engineering community and the next generation of future engineers. IMMERSE students learn from others, push themselves to make real contributions, and foster the education of others. This cycle naturally sustains itself, ultimately resulting in graduate students, faculty, and industry engineers who are trained to excel and increase excellence in their field. IMMERSE’s emphasis on example, teamwork, and training, sustained over approximately half of the students’ undergraduate years, is a significant contribution to the education of future leaders of engineering.
Effective and enriching, the IMMERSE program has demonstrably furthered the engineering careers of more than 300 students. As a group, IMMERSE students complete their engineering degrees, pursue graduate degrees, publish, and find desirable employment. These successes have prompted widening adoption, both within the ECE department and throughout BYU’s College of Engineering. IMMERSE has been recognized at the university level for its innovation and achievement and is now a flagship program for BYU’s emerging emphasis on experiential learning outside of the classroom.
Since 2003, IMMERSE has employed 395 students. From its inception, retention, peer-reviewed publications, and graduate degrees have been carefully tracked metrics of success. Among students who join the IMMERSE program, retention in engineering is extremely high. The vast majority begin the program as engineering majors and more than 97% graduate with an engineering degree. To date, 60% of IMMERSE students have authored or co-authored a scientific paper, accounting for 289 total publications. Of the IMMERSE students who have completed their B.S. degrees, 75% matriculated to graduate school (see the map below). Virtually all IMMERSE students who have not pursued graduate degrees have been heavily recruited, partly due to the reputation of IMMERSE, receiving multiple employment offers. As these statistics illustrate, and as we have informally witnessed, IMMERSE students outperform their counterparts in significant ways.
The quality of an IMMERSE experience is of lasting benefit to students, opening doors for further competitive opportunities. IMMERSE alumni submit graduate school applications with established records of research, usually including authored publications. IMMERSE students develop close relationships with their faculty advisors, leading to compelling recommendation letters. The IMMERSE curriculum ensures students develop improved writing skills for personal statements and fellowship applications. They gain more accurate insight into funding and selection processes. We often see IMMERSE students receive admission offers that exceed what could be expected based solely on GPA and GRE scores, and this “IMMERSE Boost” continues to grow with the reputation of the program.
IMMERSE aims to recruit from a diverse applicant pool, advertising widely and aggressively. We believe that a core strength of the IMMERSE program lies in the training and opportunities that push students to reach their full potential. Entering students often feel mediocre or unambitious in their career goals. Many have never considered graduate school or leadership roles within their discipline. The confidence they gain throughout the program, corroborated by the external validation IMMERSE students experience, creates young engineers who are eager to raise their goals and driven in pursuing them.