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July 30, 2016

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UNLV gives undergraduates wings

Student on NASA team working on solar-powered flight


Steve Marcus

UNLV mechanical engineering student Ann Marie Frappier has worked on the “Howie Mark IV” unmanned aerial vehicle.

One of the chasms in life separates high school freshman and seniors. And then there’s the one separating college undergraduates, who study, and graduate students, who research. Now, a growing number of colleges allow undergraduates to cross the chasm.

Among them is UNLV, where Ann Marie Frappier, 20, an engineering major, was part of a NASA-sponsored team to design and build a mock-up of a solar-powered plane. “I’m the kind of person who wants to understand everything,” Frappier said.

UNLV encourages undergraduates to do research, said Frappier, who graduated from Clark High School in 2008. “UNLV is very welcoming to undergraduates getting their hands dirty.”

One reason is to recruit more women, such as Frappier, into male-dominated sciences and technical professions, such as engineering.

The efforts are relatively modest. For example, a National Science Foundation program called “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” offers about $60 million in grants.

“It hasn’t grown in leaps and bounds, but it’s been steady,” Corby Hovis, the program’s director, said about the grants. Established in 1987, the program has received three-year grants up to $325,000.

But the program depends almost entirely on a professor’s enthusiasm for working with undergraduates, he said, something not all instructors are willing to do.

The advantage is obvious, Hovis said. Colleges “see it as a way of getting their work done and also as a way of recruiting future graduate students.”

So far, the results are modest for women. A survey of research literature by the Society of Women Engineers found less than one in five engineering bachelor’s degrees were held by women in 2008, the most recent year available.

“We need to encourage women to go into these disciplines, and expanding outside of the lecture hall into research would help do that,” UNLV Provost Michael Bowers said. “Higher education is not about only facts and figures, but solving the problems of the future.”

Frappier is enthusiastic about undergraduate research.

She was a straight-A student at Clark’s Academy for Mathematics, Science, and Applied Technology. While her friends were applying to Berkeley, Princeton and the Air Force Academy, Frappier set her eyes on UNLV.

She is interested in mathematics and engineering because she loves aircraft (although she doesn’t plan to get a pilot’s license).

A UNLV engineering professor, Robert Abella, who is associate dean of undergraduate programs, had been introducing students, including Frappier, to a state Transportation Department project on smart cars on computer-driven highways.

One thing led to another, and Frappier was introduced to the NASA-sponsored project. Last year, she began working with four undergraduates to develop solar-powered planes.

The group’s mock-up in the engineering building resembles a pterodactyl with a 9-foot wingspan.

Undirected research, such as the solar-powered plane project, isn’t intended to solve a problem, but to tease out approaches that may have value for similar, perhaps completely unrelated, problems.

Besides learning to apply course work in calculus and materials mechanics, or how things perform under stress, Frappier learned more practical matters, such has how hard it is to buy the right size thin-film solar cells and how much two dozen cost ($3,000).

Still, a powerful enough drone could be used for military reconnaissance. Frappier’s group’s mock-up can carry up to 15 pounds and can stay aloft for seven hours.

Frappier is applying for a $25,000 Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation scholarship that would allow her to work at a Defense Department facility.

The scholarship is SMART, for short.

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