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UTEP Launches Virtual Research Experience for Undergraduates

Last Updated on September 16, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published September 16, 2020

By Christina Rodriguez

UTEP Communications

This summer marked the first time a group of faculty and students at The University of Texas at El Paso were able to engage in meaningful research opportunities while staying safe amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through the launch of the Virtual Research Experience for Undergraduates (vREU).

Beginning this summer, a group of faculty and students at UTEP were able to engage in meaningful research opportunities through the launch of the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions (CAHSI) Virtual Research Experience for Undergraduates (vREU) national pilot program. Photo: Courtesy

The national pilot program was hosted by the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions (CAHSI), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) Alliance.

UTEP is the backbone organization for the CAHSI pilot program that was designed as a collaborative effort by Ann Gates, Ph.D., the national CAHSI lead and vice provost at UTEP; Elsa Villa, Ph.D., CAHSI lead for capacity building and director of the Center for Education Research and Policy Studies at UTEP; Patricia Morreale, Ph.D., professor and chair at Kean University in New Jersey and lead of the North region; Claudia Casas, manager for strategic initiatives; and CAHSI regional leads.

The pilot was funded through an NSF rapid response grant to ensure that students could be supported to have remote undergraduate research experiences during a time when many of these opportunities were canceled due to the pandemic. The program provides undergraduate research experiences for up to 51 students and 21 faculty members drawn from 24 colleges and universities throughout the nation.

UTEP received $200,000 of the NSF grant that provides stipends for participating students and faculty who serve as research mentors. Three UTEP faculty member – Vladik Kreinovich, Ph.D., professor of computer science; Martine Ceberio, Ph.D., professor of computer science; and Omar Badreddin, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science – are mentoring nine students from institutions throughout the nation. Two UTEP computer science and engineering students are participating in the pilot program under the mentorship of faculty at other institutions.

The CAHSI vREU pilot is based on the CAHSI national design for collective impact, using the West, Southwest, North and Southeast regional university communities of faculty leads, researchers and students to personalize developmental experiences. The eight-week program has the goal to deliberately develop students’ research and professional skills through involvement in a research project.

The program is built on one of CAHSI’s signature practices, the Affinity Research Group (ARG) model, a program of structured activities that build students’ research capacity. The model was put into immediate practice by participants for their summer research projects. CAHSI vREU students and faculty are widely distributed throughout the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico.

“We’re excited to share the vREU opportunity and ARG training with our growing community,” Gates said. “We’re looking forward to see the exciting research that will come from this summer program.”  

The program offers a wide range of projects being led by faculty across CAHSI institutions. Example projects include: investigating computationally efficient and reliable predictions and control of dynamical systems under uncertainty; automatic detection of participants’ attention in online discussion; simulation and modeling of a collision avoidance control strategy for autonomous robotic swarms; and deep learning applications for brain disease detection.

Student researchers work in virtual teams with faculty mentors to develop their research projects. Faculty connect with participants using Zoom and other virtual tools. The outcome of the program includes a final presentation of research posters at the Great Minds in STEM Conference in October 2020, as well as virtual displays on the CAHSI website (

UTEP junior Vivian Sanchez said her favorite portion of the program has been how it pushed her out of her comfort zone. She believes that is exactly what she needed to elevate her training in computer science.

“I was given a project to create an Alexa skill for a stroke scenario and connect it to a live 3D character for doctors and nurses in training to practice on,” Sanchez said. “At first, it seemed like something absolutely impossible, but with the reassurance of my mentor and fierce determination, I have been able to make great progress in my project and am confident in my work.

“Before now, I would have never tried to create an Alexa skill and I never would have tried to use video game software to create 3D characters. Being part of the CAHSI vREU program has been a wonderful experience that I am so grateful to be a part of.”

Montserrat Molina had just completed her second internship at a big tech company, but still had not tapped into research opportunities during her time at the University. The junior computer science major thought the CAHSI vREU program provided the perfect opportunity to explore the field of research while learning more about software engineering.

“So far, my experience with this program has been incredible,” Molina said. “Not only have I been exposed to the basics of research and been able to get my hands into what research is, but I have also been able to make new connections at UTEP.”

“I am able to see how research has a huge impact on what I am learning in school and how necessary and important it is to have these research skills, regardless of whether or not you will be continuing into the research field. Overall, this program has really enriched my learning experience at UTEP because it has allowed me to see the things I’ve learned at school in action, which makes me even more passionate about what I am learning.”

The faculty and student development materials from the program will be added to the CAHSI Signature Practices available on CAHSI’s website and used nationally for broadening participation in computing. The program concludes Sept. 18, 2020.