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Safe Passages Research Experience for Undergraduates

(Article from WTI eNews, April 2011)

The Western Transportation Institute completed the final year of its three-year NSF-funded Safe Passages Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program this summer. The goal of the program was to address the nation’s need for innovative solutions to issues arising at the interface between the nation’s rural transportation infrastructure and the natural environment. The intent of the REU was to integrate a variety of strategies in addressing problems in the program’s three research focus areas: 1) water and fish passage; 2) wildlife movement and habitat connectivity; and 3) public safety and mobility. Student projects utilized the U.S. Highway 191 travel corridor between Bozeman and West Yellowstone, Montana. REU research conducted on this busy two-lane roadway, which cuts through a major riparian corridor, important wildlife habitat, and a portion of Yellowstone National Park, was designed to provide a model for developing integrated transportation solutions to address both public safety and environmental concerns on rural highways nationwide. Each year, eight participants were selected from colleges and universities nationwide for the ten week summer research program.

Recruitment of underrepresented groups in engineering, specifically women and Native American students, was a primary program goal. Diversity recruitment efforts were quite successful. Over the course of the three year REU program, 21% of the twenty-four participants were from underrepresented ethnic/racial groups (including Native American), 8% were Native American, and 63% were female. Participants also represented a wide range of academic majors (13 total) and home institutions (21 total).

The program strove to provide research experiences to students who have limited access to research at their home institutions. Recruitment efforts targeted non-research intensive two-year and four-year colleges to achieve this goal. One-third of participants in the program came from home institutions that do not grant degrees beyond a Master’s. Four of the participants came from institutions offering Bachelor’s degrees only.

Research projects were selected from each of the three thematic research focus areas: water and fish passage (5 projects); wildlife movement and habitat connectivity (3 projects); and public safety and mobility (5 projects). An interdisciplinary team of two students worked on each project. Four of the twelve REU projects have resulted in successful submissions to professional conferences or publications.

The successful REU program provided valuable research experience to a diverse group of twenty-four undergraduate students, which will impact their problem-solving skills and their career and academic choices after graduation. In the words of one of the 2010 participants:

“This summer was the best summer of my life. I learned so much, gained so many new skills, and experienced so many new things. It truly has been life changing.”

WTI will seek additional support from NSF to continue offering undergraduate research opportunities focused on safe and sustainable transportation in rural environments.