Posted on July 25: Summer school offers unique opportunities

By Julia Thomson, July 25, 2002
    Sandra Kuchta

Always at the forefront of undergraduate education, McMaster University is leading the pack again, this time, during the summer instead of the fall or winter.

The Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research (BIMR) is holding summer school for a group of exceptional undergraduate students.

These 57 students, including nine from outside of McMaster, are taking part in some of the strongest research projects on campus, says John Preston, director of the BIMR. "The primary issue is training," he says. "We want students to see that they are working on problems for which the professors and the graduate students don't know the answers."

From his experiences with a former theme school, Preston learned the value of combining experience with a summer position, and helping students to see their summer job as part of their academic studies.

That is just the case for Rudi Phillion, studying aerospace engineering at Carleton University. "I'm hoping to use what I learn here in another job," he says. "What I'm learning complements it (my program of study) very well. I didn't want to come here and relearn material. I wanted to learn something new."

This year is the pilot year for this innovative program. At the beginning of the work term, students were matched with faculty members who were studying areas students were interested in. They then spend the summer working with those professors, and graduate students, on a variety of research projects.

"These are not artificial undergraduate projects," says Preston. "The students get paid, and are working on these projects, and have a supervisor who cares about the project."

As well as giving students access to world-class laboratories, facilities and equipment, organizers of the summer school have provided many opportunities for students to develop their careers and to discover more about the many fields of materials research.
Supplementary activities include lectures by faculty or students on current research, information sessions by representatives from various industries, tours to research or industrial sites and small student-group workshops for training in specialized techniques.

For many students, the weekly lectures are experiences they find very valuable. Barbara Ulitsky, a second-year physics student working with Dr. Shi on polymer physics, appreciates the opportunity to learn about what other people are working on: "If there wasn't (the seminars) I'd be sitting in my narrow field, but now I know what's behind it and the science behind it . . . I understand the importance of what I'm doing."

Organizations are also realizing the importance of what these students are doing. The overall costs of the school will be approximately $55,000. Materials and Manufacturing Ontario has contributed $20,000 towards the program. The researchers also contributed $20,000, and the remaining costs are being covered by the VP Research and the BIMR. As well, companies have supported the summer school by providing speakers and tours.

The unique opportunities McMaster is offering this year have attracted nine students from outside of McMaster  six from Canada and three from France. Each external student receives a scholarship to help pay for expenses while living in Hamilton. Organizers are hoping to offer 20 scholarships next year, with an overall enrollment of between 70 and 80 students.

It appears that the BIMR summer school will meet its enrollment targets with ease. The program is already attracting more undergraduate students for next year. Preston has received e-mails from several French students interested in participating in future summer schools.

As well, current students are already looking forward to returning next year. Laureen D'Amico, an engineering physics and management student at McMaster, believes that the decision to apply for the summer school will open a lot of doors for her. "It's kept me thinking, but it's not like school," she explains. "I get good hands-on experience with equipment that I see in textbooks. It's a very friendly, relaxed, helpful atmosphere. Everyone works together and there's a sense of community."

Photo caption: BIMR summer school student Sandra Kuchta prepares an air-sensitive sample in a vaccuum glove box.