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Opportunities for undergrad research are plentiful and diverse

Some shoot at torsos, some build Internet Ouija board robots, others explore sex education

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Posted May 10, 2000

Elley Cheng spends 10 hours of her busy undergraduate week firing 4.5-pound steel projectiles into a fabricated human torso. Using a three-inch air-powered cannon, the 21-year-old mechanical engineering major will shoot a steel bullet into the rib cage of this custom-designed, gel-filled torso, endowed with actuators, then record the amount of force that is delivered and its effect on the ribs and spine.

"After we've done that, we'll put chest protectors on the dummy and rerun the test," she said. "We're testing the effectiveness of chest protectors used in sports such as the martial arts and baseball."

Dennis Lieu, a professor of mechanical engineering, runs the 1,800-square-foot Electro-Mechanical Design Laboratory on the second floor of Etcheverry Hall, and oversees the undergraduate research project, titled "Modeling the Response of the Human Torso to Blunt Impact."

"The Korean-based martial arts sport, Taekwondo, is very popular, and we've tested head gear and chest protectors from several manufacturers," Lieu said. "The students are assisting in the fabrication of the model torso, setting up the experiments, collecting data and processing data, and gaining valuable hands-on experience in the field."

Two floors up, in a telerobotics laboratory known as the Alpha Lab, industrial engineering and operations undergraduates are developing a client-server interface that will allow computer users to simultaneously operate a physical robot arm over the Internet.

"The students in this project are designing a new World Wide Web telerobotic system that will allow up to 30 users to collaboratively control a robot in real time," said Ken Goldberg, a professor of industrial engineering. "The robot arm in this case is using a Ouija board."

Several users play the game together by placing their hands together on a sliding plastic planchette.

Controlled by an industrial computer arm, the planchette is free to slide over a board marked with letters and messages such as "yes" and "no."

The group of users poses a question. As each user concentrates, the planchette slides across the board to spell out a word or answer the question.

"Although we do not claim the planchette is influenced by supernatural powers, it is in many cases influenced by the conscious and unconscious movements of all participants," said Goldberg, who leads the Development of Internet Telerobotics project. "Our client-server system facilitates many simultaneous users cooperating to share a single robot. To our knowledge, this is the first collaboratively controlled robot on the Internet."

But telerobotics isn't for everyone. Laura Delehunt, a 20-year-old junior majoring in English, is honing her bibliographic, proposal-writing and content-analysis skills by researching a sizzling topic: sex education controversies in the public schools.

"We're looking at how people come to their moral visions and how they transmit those visions across generational lines. What are people really fighting about when they confront sex education in the schools?" she asked. "This has definitely been a unique experience and one that I would encourage undergraduates to take advantage of."

These students are among hundreds enrolled in undergraduate research projects each year to enrich their employment and educational opportunities.

A limited number of projects are offered through the College of Engineering's Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, whose goal is to involve undergraduates more deeply in the research life of the university. These are funded jointly by the Vice Chancellor's Office and the College of Engineering, and provide stipends to participating engineering students who assist in faculty research during the academic year.

Thirty-two projects offering stipends of $500 were under way this spring, said program coordinator Ana Castillo. The projects run the gamut -- from characterizing cardiovascular tissue or the radiative properties of biological surfaces, most suitable to those of the bioengineering ilk, to devising cutting-edge algorithms and Web site logistics software, which will attract future industrial engineers who want to revolutionize Federal Express's computerized inventory and tracking system.

The program is a spinoff of Berkeley's Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, which offers a much broader mix of 300 to 350 unpaid apprentice positions.

Research opportunities in the apprentice program are as diverse as they are plentiful, ranging in any subject from the arts and humanities to the life sciences, public policy and women's studies, said Terry Strathman, director of the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.

"Students will find research opportunities in many departments and professional schools, become assistants in faculty-led research projects, or decide to develop their own proposals and pursue funding for an independent research project or a community service project," Strathman said.

"Students at any level of undergraduate training can enroll," Castillo added. "The positions are competitive, but they open a lot of doors for those who want to stand out and become more marketable, or for those who want to work closely with the faculty."

For most, the experience is a litmus test for the real world. Many students will go on to jobs in the laboratories in which they worked as apprentices, Strathman said. Or they will be exposed to interdisciplinary research and discover academic and professional talents they had never considered before.

"My work in the Electro-Mechanical Lab has given me the opportunity to apply my knowledge and think about what I want to do after I graduate," Cheng, the martial arts gear tester, said. "It helped me get closer to the faculty and it will help me in interviews, when I want to show employers how I can apply my knowledge to practical tasks."

Added Myra Mendoza, 22, who studied corneal cell infections in the School of Optometry and is about to take the litmus test as a member of the class of 2000, "The things I learned in the classroom actually stick in the lab."



May 10 - June 6, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 33)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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