Three years of NSF funding for PEER Internship Program inspires 43 undergrads to pursue earthquake engineering and mitigation research

From 2011-2013, PEER recruited and provided research experience to forty-three undergraduate students as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Partnered with a team of faculty members, graduate students, and professional mentors, each student was hosted for 10 weeks per summer at each of the following six universities/institutions: City & County of San Francisco, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), Stanford University, University of California Berkeley (UCB), University of California Davis (UCD), and University of Washington (UW).

The PEER recruited and accepted a diverse group of participants. Forty percent of the students were female. Hispanic students were especially prominent in 2013. Twenty-one percent of the participants were the first generation in their family to attend college.

The students came from 27 different universities, thirteen of which were undergraduate-serving with limited research programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The 16 students from these universities might not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in research or even have basic exposure to the research process.

Student research project topics related to the theme of “earthquake resilient communities” in one of the following engineering fields: structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, public policy, or risk analysis. Students learned how earthquake resiliency could be investigated from many disciplinary perspectives during weekly web-conferences in which they shared research progress and results with the full intern cohort. The students also benefited from the experience and guidance of graduate student mentors. These graduate students, in turn, enhanced their own skills in teaching and mentorship by participating in the program, better preparing them for future academic faculty appointment.

Publication combined with skills and experience developed during the internship program—a comprehensive orientation, supplemental training at a partner university or institution, a completed research project, and exposure to the broader community with attendance and poster presentation at the PEER annual meeting—made the students strong candidates for graduate study. Indeed, a majority of the students who have completed their undergraduate work are currently enrolled in graduate programs or have now entered careers in earthquake engineering.

Data from a longitudinal survey conducted in August 2013 and updated in March 2014 shows twelve of the students are now working in a professional career involving science and engineering, with eight specifically focused on earthquake engineering topics. The data also shows that sixteen students are enrolled in graduate study for a Master’s or Ph.D. degree, all of whom are studying earthquake engineering or earthquake resiliency concepts in either structural engineering (9), geotechnical engineering (4), public policy (1), and hazard mitigation (1). Of the three students enrolled in a Ph.D. program, one is a woman and one is Hispanic. In summary, 56% of the interns have gone into fields related to earthquake engineering and earthquake resiliency, 9% work in an alternate science or engineering career, 2% could not be contacted and 33% are still completing their undergraduate degrees. Many of the 14 students still completing their undergraduate degree have indicated that they either applied already for graduate programs (and are awaiting acceptance) or intend to apply in the future.

Evidence from the program evaluation showed that the thematic approach of the internship program with a variety of disciplinary research projects related to a common theme was a successful model and provided useful learning gains for the interns. By exposing these students to earthquake resiliency concepts and multi-disciplinary cooperation early in their career, these students are now prepared to become the next generation of earthquake hazard mitigation professionals who will implement strategies for resiliency that are essential to building and sustaining urban communities.