2023 Project Descriptions

Each year, we gather an amazing team of mentors who develop potential projects for REU students. Read through these descriptions to get a sense of what we do each summer and pick out your three favorites! You'll need that for the application - we match students with projects and mentors to help ensure a successful summer for everyone!


(1) Can I have your attention please? Exploring factors that influence the frequency of mind-wandering in the classroom

Mentoring team: Katie Wissman and Alex Knopps

As a student, you are expected to sit through a lot of classes and learn a lot of information. So, be honest, how many times have you been in class or working on a homework assignment or studying for an exam, only to find that you are not at all paying attention to what you are trying to learn? Mind-wandering is a common occurrence in our day-to-day lives. It is also something that has a negative impact on cognitive functioning and memory retrieval, which can have deleterious effects on learning and retention. This project explores different factors that influence the frequency of mind-wandering in classroom settings, and how this in turn impacts student perceptions and student learning. Outcomes from this project will help us better understand how to support and improve student experiences in educational contexts. 

After completing this REU project, students working on this project will be able to:

  • Acquire an understanding of key concepts and methodologies used in psychology
  • Code and analyze student responses from data collection
  • Communicate knowledge and findings to our community of researchers
  • Develop research questions for future avenues of exploration
  • Synthesize and present findings in the form of a scientific poster


(2) SMASH!!: Using the microbiology concept inventory to facilitate curricular reform

Mentoring team: Danielle Condry and Johnny Nguyen

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to hit the most confusing class you’ve ever taken with a metaphorical sledgehammer? The Microbiology Concept Inventory is a test that was created with the purpose of assessing how well students really understand microbiology. Its wide, yet focused breadth of coverage allows examiners to see exactly which areas of microbiology seem to give examinees trouble. When applied to curriculum, it can be possible to identify specific courses (or even lessons!) that are falling short with students. This. This is your sledgehammer. Join this project and receive one*, free of charge! Now take it and... uh... metaphorically smash?

The researcher on this project will:

  • Develop an understanding of concept inventories through relevant literature
  • Reinforce core understanding of microbiology
  • Practice research-driven communication by articulating progress, setbacks, and concerns to collaborating researchers
  • Break down open responses into quantifiable categories
  • Draw conclusions based on findings in analysis
  • Suggest future directions that may lead to curricular reform
  • Synthesize and present a scientific poster based on the culmination of the summer’s work

*Disclaimer: actual sledgehammers not included


(3) Taking the anxiety out of grades and grading

Mentoring team: Jenni Momsen, Tara Slominski, and Emily Hackerson

Do you hate grades? Did you know that many faculty also hate grading? It’s true! Here at NDSU, we are part of a growing movement exploring alternative grading practices in undergraduate science education and we’re looking for a few students to join us this summer.

Specifically, we are interested in how alternative grading practices - like retesting, standards based grading, and flexible deadlines - impact science students’ mindset, self-concept, persistence, and more. Students on this project will collaborate with Jenni, Tara, and Emily to analyze survey and interview data to learn more about the impacts of alternative grading. 

Through this research experience, you will:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of the current literature on alternative grading practices;
  • Learn qualitative and quantitative research techniques;
  • Develop research questions and a plan for data collection and analysis;
  • Communicate your science to our community of researchers; and
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program.


(4)  Students’ conceptual understanding of fundamental chemistry concepts

Mentoring team: James Nyachwaya

Conceptual understanding in chemistry is a goal that instructors have for their courses and students. One way of measuring or ascertaining the level of conceptual understanding is through assessment. Research in chemistry education has consistently shown that while most students show mastery of facts and memorized procedures, they struggle to demonstrate true conceptual understanding. Through student responses to open ended questions, we seek to characterize students’ conceptual understanding of basic, fundamental chemistry concepts. Our data is drawn from a general chemistry course.

Research Question: What is the nature of general chemistry students’ conceptual understanding of fundamental concepts such as the particulate nature of matter?

In the course of the research experience, participants will:

  • Synthesize literature on conceptual understanding in chemistry,
  • Analyze student data to determine the nature of understanding
  • Learn qualitative and quantitative research techniques;
  • Develop research questions and a plan for data collection and analysis
  • Communicate your science to a community of researchers
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program.


(5) Grades galore! Or not? Studies on alternative grading in chemistry

Mentoring team: Alexey Leontyev, Amanda Lam, and Ariana McDarby

Have you ever wondered why instructors grade the way that they do? In this project you will have the opportunity to analyze both interview and survey data collected from chemistry professors who decided to shake it up (break from tradition) and chose to use “alternative” grading methods. The common points-based system featuring the A-F letter and 0-100% numeric scales is what we consider “traditional” grading. There can be many variations of traditional grading, and the same is true of alternative grading. Here you will get a chance to learn about different grading methods, what professors think of them, and the rationale behind why professors chose to use a particular method.

Why did these professors decide to make a change in how they grade? Find out by working with the three “A”s (Alexey, Ariana, and Amanda)!

The student researcher will:

  • Become familiar with alternative grading practices used in chemistry
  • Develop an understanding of the research landscape on alternative grading practices
  • Practice qualitative and quantitative research skills in collaboration with two real-life chemistry education grad students and a faculty mentor
  • Code and analyze professor interview transcripts AND professor survey data collected during the summer
  • Communicate their work through a scientific poster and informal verbal presentation


(6) Why do I have to take science?! Analyzing non-science major opinions on science general education requirements

Mentoring team: Wil Falkner and Lisa Montplaisir 

Have you found yourself taking a general education course to graduate and asking why are you wasting your time on content outside of your discipline? On average, a student’s bachelor’s degree is comprised of roughly 20% general education requirements. These courses are intended to provide robust academic and professional skills to students and engage with different perspectives on their place in the world. This project aims to investigate how students perceive natural science general education courses and their appropriateness as part of their education in an effort to improve general education courses to serve our students best.

After completing this REU project, students working on this project will be able to:

  • Argue for (or against!) general education courses as a requirement for undergraduate students
  • Code, analyze, and construct meaning from open response surveys
  • Communicate your findings and offer solutions based on evidence
  • Construct research questions for your own investigation into general science education
  • Synthesize and present findings in the form of a scientific poster


(7) In Science We Trust: Analyzing Scientific Trust, Scientific Literacy, and Evidence-Based Decisions

Mentoring team: Kimberly Booth and Marley Lund-Peterson

Scientists worldwide have worked tirelessly to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, such as developing vaccines and distributing them worldwide. A perplexing observation was vaccine hesitancy, even in countries with ample and early access to COVID-19 vaccines. This progress toward fighting the pandemic via vaccination relies on one critical element: trust in science. In this project, our research goal is to characterize general education biology students’ trust in science by collecting and analyzing students’ responses from the “Trust in Science and Scientists” inventory. We will investigate the following questions related to scientific trust: 1) Do students' personal connections to scientists or the scientific community impact their level of trust? 2) Does scientific trust impact scientific literacy? 3) Does scientific trust affect whether students make evidence-based decisions, such as choosing to vaccinate? By determining how student trust is affected and what scientific trust influences, we hope to better understand how to connect and communicate the importance of scientific trust with future students. 

 After completion of this project, the REU students will be able to:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of a scientist’s role in the growing field of science communication
  • Analyze student data to interpret potential connections between our identified variables
  • Learn and apply basic statistics
  • Make scientific claims based on student data
  • Develop new scientific questions for further research
  • Synthesize findings in a poster and presentation at the end of this program


(8) Grading practices in upper-division physics: Why is every class the same? 

Mentoring team: Warren Christensen

Nearly all upper-division physics courses have a similar way of calculating a grade for the course. Typically, there are weekly homework assignments, 1-2 mid-term exams and a final exam. Oftentimes those graded assignments aren’t given back to students for a long period of time. And the feedback students receive is typically a numerical score and a few written comments. Why do so many instructors evaluate learning in this way? In this project you will have the opportunity to interview and analyze data from physics professors and find out what motivates their assessments and grading practices. This project is part of a broader project on traditional and alternative grading practices. Here you will get a chance to learn about different grading methods, what professors think of them, and the rationale behind why professors chose to use a particular method.

 After completion of this project, the REU students will be able to:

  • Write an interview protocol
  • Conduct interviews using the developed protocol
  • Analyze interview data and applying a coding scheme 
  • Make scientific claims based on interview data


(9) “What happened to just using x and y?” Investigating the interplay of students’ mathematics and physics thinking
Mentoring team:  Warren Christensen

Despite four or more semesters devoted to learning calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations in mathematics classrooms, students often encounter substantial challenges when asked to perform physics tasks that require the use of what should be learned skills from math. This project will extend initial investigations into students thinking about mathematics within the context of middle-division math and the upper-division of physics classes. Topics of interest include investigations into students' understanding of calculus concepts (especially integration), linear algebra concepts, and differential equations in a first-semester quantum mechanics course, as well as a first-semester electricity and magnetism course.

Conducting research at the upper-division necessarily requires a focus on qualitative research due to the small number of students typically enrolled in upper-division physics courses. The REU student on this project, will analyze previously collected interview and group work data to better understand students' nuanced thinking about their mathematical understanding. The student will also develop an interview protocol that investigates both mathematics and physics thinking, and then conduct interviews among graduate students and, potentially, physics faculty.

Through participation in this project students will:

  • Read literature across the domain of mathematics and physics education research
  • Analyze video data and learn to make claims based on qualitative evidence
  • Attain skills in Interview protocol development
  • Conduct interviews with physics and mathematics students and faculty


(10)  Who wants to save the Earth? Recruitment and outreach for the earth sciences

Mentoring team:  Stephanie Day, Lydia Tackett

In an article published in 2021, researchers indicate that as high school students plan their futures with altruism in mind, seeking majors and careers that will provide societal benefits.  While most scientists can articulate how their research makes a difference in the world, we often choose to emphasize different aspects of what it is like to be a scientist when doing outreach or recruitment (i.e. working outside, travel, fun, etc). Across the country, low enrollments in Geoscience degree programs is troubling. This may be due, in part, to limited outreach efforts that show how the field is critical to society and a lack of geoscience classes in most high schools. With predicted shortages of people with geoscience expertise it is critical we reverse trends in enrollments and find novel ways to recruit future scientists to the field. 

In this REU experience participants will: 

  • Analyze survey data from community outreach events,
  • Develop literature-based best practices related to outreach and recruitment to STEM disciplines,
  • Make modifications to an outreach activity to improve its effectiveness in communicating societal benefits and career paths, and
  • Synthesize findings in a poster and presentation.


(11)  Vector addition & subtraction: Interpreting what students do

Mentoring team: John Buncher and Nekeisha Johnson

Vectors, objects having both a size and a direction, are extremely useful in modeling the physical world.  They can describe things such as the velocity of the wind, the direction to go down a hill the fastest, or the forces acting on an object.  A key goal of an introductory physics class is for students to be able to visualize the manipulation and combination of vectors as arrows, but this is often surprisingly difficult for students to master.  In an effort to understand some of the difficulties students have with vectors, we asked students to add and subtract two vectors in a variety of problems to see how they performed.

As a part of this project, you will be looking for patterns in how students answered the various questions by looking at their written work.  Do they always answer similar types of questions correctly?  Do they always make the same type of mistake on similar questions, or do they make different kinds of mistakes?  By examining students' written work and their multiple-choice responses, we can gain insight into why certain aspects of vector addition & subtraction are difficult, and why some interventions meant to assist students are ineffective.

In the course of the research experience, participants will:

  • Synthesize literature on student understanding and performance on vectors
  • Learn quantitative methods, such as statistical analysis, to quantify the conclusions about student responses
  • Learn qualitative methods, such as coding written responses and/or interview data
  • Present their research progress in lab group meetings
  • Present their research progress as part of an oral presentation to their fellow REU participants and other faculty mentors
  • Synthesize research findings in the form of a scientific poster to be presented at the conclusion of the program


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