SUNFEST - Research Experience for Undergraduates
J. Van der Spiegel, J. Santiago-AvilÚs, J. N. Zemel
Center for Sensor Technologies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Abstract This paper describes our experience over the last ten years with a Summer Research Program for Undergraduates. The program provides the students with a comprehensive experience that is centered around - but not limited to - doing research and includes several enhancement programs. This paper describes the overall organization of the program, the nature of the projects, activities and programs, the selection process, outcomes and benefits. So far, 95 students have participated and about 70% of them have gone on to graduate school.

Background and Goals

SUNFEST (Summer Undergraduate Fellowship in Sensor Technologies) is a NSF-sponsored REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program that is hosted by the Center for Sensor Technologies at the University of Pennsylvania. Its goal is to provide motivated and bright undergraduate students in engineering and science with hands-on research opportunities, to strengthen their educational experience, and to motivate students to go on to graduate school [1]. SUNFEST originated in 1986 as one of the educational initiatives of the Center for Sensor Technologies whose mission is to serve as an intellectual focal point for faculty and students in the broad area of sensor technologies.

SUNFEST started modestly with 3 students in 1986 under the industrial sponsorship of the Ford Motor Company. In 1987, the program was able to expand significantly with the assistance of a NSF-REU site grant to 9 students per year. Since 1986, 95 students have participated. Although the main objective is to provide talented undergraduates with a meaningful research experience, the program also provides a supportive environment enabling students to learn new skills, work and communicate with each other and other professionals. This is done through a series of activities including luncheon seminars in which the SUNFEST fellows give formal presentations on their work, attending enhancement workshops such as "how to give effective presentations", "doing on-line library searches", "writing technical reports", participating in "Ethics in Engineering Seminars", "Leadership Alliance Conference for Minorities", safety workshop and field trips to companies. In addition, a collegial and friendly atmosphere is developed and maintained through group gatherings and social events. A tradition was developed in which faculty and their graduate students participate in most of the events. These activities provide the SUNFEST students with an understanding of the many faceted aspects of engineering and scientific research as a professional activity.

By enabling us to provide this select group of undergraduates with such a comprehensive experience centered around ongoing or emerging research programs, the REU program adds considerable value to their education by going well beyond what they can learn from traditional classroom teaching. For most of these students, this summer experience sparks an interest and curiosity which leads them to pursue graduate studies, something they may not have done otherwise. For those students who do not go on to graduate programs immediately, it is an opportunity to give substance to what they have learned in the classroom and to integrate their knowledge from various courses into a meaningful project of their own. The benefit to our Center is that these talented people are able to contribute in a meaningful way to the overall research effort in the Center.

Organization of SUNFEST

A successful program requires that both students as well and participating faculty are well prepared. The necessary work starts before students arrive. After the selection process, students who are admitted receive a list of the faculty and available projects. An effort is made to bring the students in contact with one or two faculty who’s research interests or background best match those of the students. Students from the University of Pennsylvania, or those from neighboring institutions, are invited to visit faculty to discuss the various research opportunities. As a result of this type of interaction, a number of students generally decide prior to the official start of the SUNFEST program which projects they will pursue. The remaining students are expected to select a program after the faculty presentations are made on available topics by the end of the first day or two of the program. The way this is structured is as follows:

All students arrive on the same date so they can meet with the faculty and graduate students. In the morning, the program coordinator gives an overview of the program and explains the goals and expectations. This is followed by a brief overview of the available research projects by the participating faculty. During and after lunch students have the opportunity to discuss the projects with the faculty members and/or graduate students. In almost every instance, those students not already decided will make a decision on which project they will work on by the end of the first day. The faculty members then introduce the students to their laboratory or other work space and begin the process of providing them with more specific details on their projects. This introduction continues for the next day or so. As a result, the start-up time is minimized and students can begin the process of addressing their research topics from the first day. It has been our experience that this significantly minimizes the anxiety of undertaking a research effort and makes the students feel a part of the group right away. This is extremely important because virtually none of these students have ever been in a research environment and have no concept of what will be expected of them.

At the end of the first week, the group gets together again with the program coordinator for an informal lunch. This gives the students an opportunity to discuss any concerns they may have and to make sure everyone is off to a good start. In addition, care is taken that students from outside the University of Pennsylvania get their identification cards as soon as possible so that they can make use of the facilities such as the library and recreational facilities.

The bulk of the students’ time is spent in the individual faculty members’ laboratories engaged in their research project. However, students are required to participate, as a group, in several activities during their 10 week stay at the Center. This promotes a sense of community and stimulates further interaction on a technical and social level. One such activity that has been particularly useful for promoting interaction is the bi-weekly luncheon seminars. These are attended by all SUNFEST students, and participating faculty and graduate students. These lunch clubs are held in a casual atmosphere during which one of the graduate students or faculty talks about his or her research projects at a level that is appropriate for the undergraduates. This provides the undergraduates with a comprehensive overview of the on-going research activities and gives them examples of how research is conducted and results presented. Students are encouraged to participate in the discussions. The presence of the faculty ensures a lively interaction between the speaker and the audience. We often invite former SUNFEST students who are now in graduate school here at the University to attend these lunch clubs, to talk about their experience, give students advice on doing research and information for applying to graduate schools.

Five weeks into the program, a mid-summer symposium is held during which the SUNFEST students are asked to give short presentations about their projects. This includes background and the goals of the project, plans for the summer, the approach and any preliminary results. To further assist the undergraduates in preparing for these talks, a one-day, hands-on workshop on "How to Give Efficient Presentations" is offered earlier in the program. The mid-summer symposium focuses on an oral presentation, complete with view graphs and/or slides to best illustrate the progress. These presentations motivate students to get the best possible results and to keep progress deadlines. In addition, it is often their first opportunity to present their work in a clear and concise fashion. At the end of the 10 week program, the students give a final presentation which is open to the public. Students are welcome to invite friends, family and academic advisors to attend the symposium. Before leaving, the students are required to submit a 15-20 page written report summarizing their results. This report is reviewed and commented on by their advisor before the final version is submitted to the program coordinator. After additional editing, these reports are assembled as the major part of the body of the final SUNFEST technical report [2].

Nature of the Projects

The key to a successful undergraduate research experience is the research project. Above all, it must deal with a genuine research problem if it is to challenge the intellects of the SUNFEST participants. In addition, the projects must be at a level appropriate to the educational level of the undergraduate students. As projects with significant research character, they have excellent prospects for continuation after the summer. It goes almost without saying that the projects must have the active involvement of graduate students and faculty who then work closely with the undergraduates and act as role models. In this way the undergraduates learn techniques and methods suited to their research field. In addition, the faculty invited to participate in the REU program are those with a strong commitment to, and prior experience with, undergraduate research supervision. Notwithstanding the faculty mentorship, it is important that the project stands by itself so the undergraduate can "own" it and be fully responsible for it’s outcome.

The projects are in the general area of "Sensor Technologies" which includes physical, chemical, and optical sensors, micromachining techniques, micro-electronics systems and sensory information processing based on neural networks. Examples of projects are "Transdermal DNA delivery using an ultrasonic transducer", (C. Bright - Swarthmore College); "Pyroelectric anemometer", (R. Green, Lincoln Univ.); "Voicing detection using homomorphic speech processing", (R. Branson - Lincoln Univ.); "Automatic speech recognition of fricatives using feature extraction on a neural computer", (G. Koch III - U. Penn); "A study to improve fluorescence detection methods", J. C. Saez - U. Puerto Rico); and "Learning algorithms for optical pattern recognition on an analog neural computer", (J. Murray - U. Oklahoma). Several of the projects have resulted in papers or conference presentations [2].

Other activities

The goal of the SUNFEST program is to provide an environment in which students learn the necessary skills to conduct independent research and to communicate their findings in a collegial and professional atmosphere. It has been our experience that this requires special effort to make this happen in the relatively short time of 10 weeks. It is for that reason that we organize a series of enhancement workshops and activities. Some of these were mentioned earlier such as a workshop on "giving effective presentations", "on-line database searches", bi-weekly lunch clubs. These workshops are held early on in the program in order to provide the students with the necessary tools they will need to accomplish their goals. During the second half of the summer, the projects are usually intensifying as students are starting to get encouraging results. It is not uncommon to see students come back to the lab in the evening or during the weekends to insure a successful conclusion to their research project by the end of the summer.

Among the other activities, there is a 6-session seminar series on "Ethics in Engineering" whose goal is to introduce the students to a broader range of thinking about the complexities and social impact of technology. The seminars are organized as discussion/case-study sessions during the lunch hour in order to minimize interference with the students’ research schedule and provides an informal forum for discussion. We make every effort to engage the students as much as possible in these seminars by asking them to re-enact scenarios in which they assume the role of a particular scientist, advocacy group or critics, after having been provided with background information. Articles from news magazines and popular science periodicals are used for the teaching materials. This is done to keep the reading load as light as possible both in terms of difficulty and volume. To promote discussion and to introduce a wide range of articles, each student is given a slightly different set of reading material. Students read their material prior to coming to the seminars and are then asked to present and justify their opinions. The goal of these exercises is to let the student experience the process of dealing with social and ethical issues. Often, these sessions conclude without any definite closure. However, students will often adjust their positions in response to comments made by others. The moderator of the discussion does not pass judgment on any controversy but is there merely to facilitate the discussion, to ensure participation, to clarify arguments presented in the reading material, or to establish certain "facts" within a fictional scenario.

Typical examples of case studies are "Public regulation of nuclear reactor research" in which students discuss the difference between the scientists’ and the community interests, alliances and differences between industry, scientists and community groups; "Scientific freedom and research" including a discussion of self-regulation and self- interest among scientists, external reviews, fraud and fraud regulation in the scientific community; "Medical Devices and Software: standards and design" with a view on the problems faced by engineers when designing medical devices; "Professional Ethics" including a discussion on the difference between professional ethics and moral conduct, the relationship between the requirements as an employee and an engineer, choice between the company’s interest and the society’s good. In addition to case studies, guest speakers are invited to these seminars. They are scholars working in the field of ethics who come and share their views and experiences with the students. For example, this year we invited Dr. Mildred Cho of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania to talk about scientific responsibilities and related issues, and Dr. Kamp of Drexel University to talk about engineering ethics. Guest speakers such as these expose the student to different points of view and to different aspects of ethics.

In addition to their research activities, the students have the opportunity to participate in one or two field trips including a visit to a local company. These visits are integrated with the ethics component of the SUNFEST program and are intended to encourage the students to ponder the relationship between ethics and real engineering work rather than seeing ethics as an abstract intellectual enterprise. Prior to visiting the company, the host company is told what the goals of the visit are with respect to seeing the technical areas and the ethical issues. Consequently, in addition to a tour of the site, the company provides a round table discussion with engineers, management and lawyers who deal with the ethical problems that confront them routinely. This is an opportunity for the students to get a first-hand look at the day-to-day ethical issues in an engineering workplace. The result is a very instructive visit.

One of the goals of the SUNFEST-REU program is to help undergraduates with their decision on whether or not to pursue graduate studies. The goal of the program is to motivate the students to seriously consider this option for their future. However, there are some practical issues which students needs to know. For that reason we provide students with information about what they can expect from graduate school and a career based on a graduate education. This year we have offered students the opportunity to attend the "Leadership Alliance Conference" which was hosted by New York University. The program is specifically intended for students belonging to under-represented groups though it welcomes others as well. The conference includes poster sessions, panels and workshops. One of the goals is to encourage students to go on to graduate school.

Finally, some of the social aspects of student life is also provided. This is particularly important for non-residents of the Philadelphia area who are away from family and friends for the duration of the program. Activities include cook-outs, visits to faculty homes and attending musical programs of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Music Center in Fairmont Park. These activities usually increase the level of interaction among students and promotes a collegial and supportive atmosphere.

Student Selection Process

The selection process plays a key role in the success of the SUNFEST program as it directly influences the quality and diversity of the applicants. Special attention is paid to getting the announcements out to as wide a group of students as possible. This is done through mailings to career and placements offices of colleges and universities within a radius of 50 miles around Philadelphia. In addition, the program is also posted on newsgroups around the country and former participants are asked to inform their peers about the SUNFEST program. We have also established personal contacts with a variety of faculty at several of these colleges to bring the SUNFEST program to the attention of their students. This method has been successful for attracting students who belong to under-represented groups. We target in particular those students from smaller colleges where research opportunities are limited. Professor Santiago-AvilÚs, who is one of the participating faculty, is active in minority activities and has been instrumental in getting first-rate minority students to participate. Over the last 10 years we have cultivated an effective working relationship with various campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras, Mayaguez, Cayey and Humacao). Each year, one or two students from the University of Puerto Rico have participated in SUNFEST. When we started about 10 years ago, our program was one of the first opportunities for Puerto Rican science and engineering students to come on a regular basis to the U.S and spend a summer at a research institution. [3].

Students are asked to submit an application which consists of a letter stating their reasons for being interested in the program and how this experience will contribute to their future plans. They must also submit two letters of recommendation and a copy of their transcript. Students are ranked based on the following criteria: academic performance, attitude towards doing research, membership in under-represented groups and research opportunities at their home institution. Occasionally references as well as the students are contacted for further clarifications. Students are then notified by phone upon completion of the selection process. A list of the participating faculty and their available research projects is mailed to SUNFEST fellows so that they can contact any faculty member who’s research project appeals to them. We typically take two-thirds of the students from outside the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the truly challenging aspects to the recruiting process is attracting first rate students. It has been our experience that this demands a concentrated effort and follow-up with faculty at other institutions. Also, it is very important to be able to advertise the positions early on in the Spring semester and to offer students the positions not later than the beginning of April. Otherwise, students will have already accepted other positions. Over the last several years, NSF has been sensitive to this issue and therefore, has notified us about REU proposal approval early in January.

Although the majority of the students come from the larger Philadelphia area (there are about 30 universities and colleges within a 50 mile radius), students from distant parts of the country have also participated.

Benefits and outcomes of the program

Up to now, 95 students have participated in the program since it started 11 years ago. The breakdown for the last 3 years of the students, according to their background, is given in table I. Our goal to have about two thirds of the students from outside Penn has been realized over the last 3 years.

Table I: Overview of participants
Ten Years
Last Three Years
Outside Penn
From Penn
* Senior status

From discussions with students and follow-up questionnaires, it has become clear that SUNFEST has had a positive influence on their choice to do research or to continue on to graduate school. Over the duration of the program, about 70% of the participants have gone on to graduate school of which 20 came back to Penn. Since then, more than 25 students have earned their MSE or Ph.D. degrees. Of the minority participants, 75% have gone on to graduate school.

Also for students who haven’t graduated yet, SUNFEST has had a positive influence [4]. Many SUNFEST students continue the research undertaken during their fellowship during the next academic year. While this usually occurs with students here at Penn, it also happens occasionally with students from other institutions who find an advisor interested in a similar type of research.

Several students have been co-authors on papers describing the research results or have given presentations at student meetings. During the period 1993-1996 (27 students), 14 journal and conference papers have resulted from the work in which SUNFEST students were involved.

Another interesting aspect of the program is the effect it it has had on the research direction of several of the supervisors. Several projects which started with one or two undergraduate students have expanded into full fledged research programs. This was due to the early and high quality work of these summer students. In many cases, these students continued their research after the summer, and later on as graduate students. Examples include our efforts on microstructures as well as the work on biologically-inspired sensors and signal processing based on neural networks. Several of the students have graduated by now, but the research they initiated has become areas of their own at the Center for Sensor Technologies. This speaks highly of the quality of the research these students are doing and is proof that the program is working as it was intended [5].

Discussion and conclusions

SUNFEST is in its eleventh year now and has given us a considerable amount of experience on what to do and what not to do. Over the years we have refined the recruitment process, and expanded the program through a series of workshops to improve the students’ skills and promote professional growth. What is most important for the success of the program is the quality and commitment of the students. It is for this reason that we pay special attention to the recruitment and selection process. Once the students arrive, the next important aspect is the nature of the project and the commitment of the participating faculty. Students need a substantial amount of guidance, especially at the beginning. We have found that it helps to get the student involved right away by providing them with a choice of interesting projects. Another essential aspect is the overall organization. Students never feel they are working by themselves as a result of the efforts made to make them feel part of a larger group of peers and friends. Barriers between faculty and students are broken down through a series of activities such as the lunch clubs, visits and social events. Also the staff in the Center is very responsive to the needs of the students. Students can go anytime to a staff member and ask for help or assistance ranging from technical, to administrative or personal questions.

The outcome in terms of the quality of research, number of papers or presentations, and students going on to graduate school have been very positive and rewarding for both the students and the participating faculty. We feel that offering such opportunities is an important part of the mission of the university and the responsibility of its faculty. By providing the students with such a comprehensive summer experience that is centered, but not limited to doing research, we are enhancing the quality of their education in ways that are impossible within the constraints of the teaching classroom.


The authors would like to thank on behalf of all the SUNFEST students the National Science Foundation for their support through the REU grant EEC-93-22055 and EEC-96-19852. Special thanks to the staff of the Center for Sensor Technologies for their support over the last 10 years, in particular Ms. Lois Clearfield for her administrative support, Mr. V. Dominko for his help in the Microfabriation facility, and to S. Deliwala for his help in the EE Undergraduate Labs. Thanks also to Dr. D. Jaggard for volunteering to give the "Presentations" workshops; to Mr. Asaf Goldschmidt and Atsushi Akera for their help with the Ethics Seminars, to Dr. L. Alexander for the visit to Lockheed Martin Corporation , and R. Markowitz of AEL Corporation for the visit to AEL Corporation.


1. J. Van der Spiegel and J. N. Zemel, "Undergraduate Fellowships as a Gateway to Graduate Research," Engineering Education, Vol. 8:3, pp. 381-383, April 1991.

2. "SUNFEST: Undergraduate Fellowships in Sensor Technologies," Report no. TR-CST-DEC96, Center for Sensor Technologies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1996.

3. J. J. Santiago-AvilÚs, et al. "Sensor Technologies: The University of Pennsylvania - University of Puerto Rico Connection", First Interamerican Conf. of Engineering Education, Mexico, Aug. 1-3, 1990.

4. J. Caroulis, "SUNFEST Program Encourages Students to Choose Research," Campus, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Vol. 4, no. 19, June 24, 1994, Philadelphia.

5. L. S. Fletcher and J. A. Weese, "An Assessment of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program in Engineering (1987-1991)", Report TAMRF-92-6963-1, 1992.

Paper presented at the Frontiers in Education Conference, Proceedings  FIE '97, Pittsburgh, Nov. 1997.