Staying power: Undergrad research

One of the University’s signature events is its Undergraduate Research Symposium, where students across disciplines gather each spring and unveil the results of their semester of study. 

The pandemic has sent this year’s April conference, like so much else, into the virtual realm. But the lack of an in-person conference had little effect on the research or the ongoing support it receives from the URC and the University’s Foundation. 

Automotive major Deven Paulsen.

In fact, the pandemic was the backdrop for a project undertaken by seniors Taiylor Hoeft and Kaylee Engle. The two psychology students sought to track the pandemic’s effect on the social, scholastic and home lives of a sampling of Minnesota State Mankato students. 

“So we’re looking at how it impacted their experiences and if there’s anything the universities can do to kind of help students along with that,” Engle said. The surveys asked for a chronology of feelings from the time the pandemic took hold to the survey’s end in early February. Early indications showed attitudes improved as time went on in areas such as comfort with hybrid learning, graduation plans and feelings of isolation. 

Senior Deven Paulsen, an automotive engineering major, is looking forward to hitting the open air with the 2021 formula SAE competition, in which universities build cars and compete in a number of categories, including endurance and other timed events.  

To level the playing field, the SAE rules require teams to use what’s called a restrictor on all engines’ air intakes, thus allowing a 700 cc engine to compete with a 400 cc engine. Paulsen is using this opportunity as a research project to study the restriction’s effect on the engine and how to maximize its efficiency with this handicap.  

“Will we still be able to make a higher boost or are we just stuck where we’re at?” Paulsen said.  

Psychology major Kaylee Engle

His grant money is going toward sensors, a power supply for them as well as other testing equipment.  

Hoeft, Engle and Paulsen are just a few of dozens of undergraduate researchers this year, and their financial support comes from both the Undergraduate Research Center and the Minnesota State Mankato Foundation board, the latter of which provides $1000 toward equipment and $1000 for stipends. The symposium will feature presentations from across campus, not solely those funded through the URC or Foundation. Some will be one semester projects, some two, capstone projects, research team presentations for grants that have been going on several years…it will be a mix. 

This is the first independent research project for both Hoeft and Engle, who had been research assistants with psychology professor and department chair Chip Panahon. 

“I’m planning to go on to graduate school and hopefully go into the career of school psychology,” Engle said. “So getting more research experience was something that was really important to me and something that I wanted to know more about.” 

Hoeft, who plans on going into occupational therapy, says the URC experience goes beyond classroom work for psychology majors.  

Psychology major Taylor Hoeft

“We take research methods and design and you do a research project as a class,” she said. 

“But this is a whole different ballgame, where we’re now working more independently but we’re able to collaborate and then have more personal responsibilities and actually seeing research firsthand.” 

Professor Pat Tebbe is in his 17th year as an engineering faculty member and his first as head of the URC. What undergraduate research provides its participants varies with each major, he said, but there are some common outcomes. 

“Sometimes it’s helping them get that first job because it’s building on experience that’s similar to what they’d get in an internship,” Tebbe said. “We have some that are pursing Ph.D. programs in different fields around the country that came out of our research projects. 

“It’s like any other practice, like internship or the job experience,” Tebbe said. “It’s building up those skills and those applications of what they’re learning outside the classroom.” 

April is the first Research Month at Minnesota State Mankato. Visit research.mnsu.edu.