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U of U Undergraduates to Demonstrate Important Research to Lawmakers

A Mechatronics robot built for the 2004 ?Rescue Robots? competition.

Jan. 19, 2005 – On Thursday, Utah lawmakers will be able to see firsthand the importance of undergraduate research coming out of the University of Utah and Utah State University, the state’s two public research institutions.

Thirty-two University of Utah undergraduate students will join Aggie counterparts in presenting the annual “Research on the Hill: A Celebration of Undergraduate Research” to Utah State legislators. The event will take place on Jan. 20, from 9 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., in the auditorium of the State Office Building, located directly north of the Utah State Capitol, where lawmakers are currently meeting, due to the renovation of the Utah State Capitol.

The students, all Utah high school graduates who plan to speak to legislators from their hometowns, will display posters, which contain information on a variety of scientific research projects. A sampling: “Head Lice: A Growing Epidemic,” a research project in the U’s Biology Department; “Diesel Fuel from Almost Nothing,” from the U’s Chemistry Department in collaboration with the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering; and “Meeting the Health Needs of the Medically Underserved at the Hartland Apartments,” being conducted in the University School of Medicine’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and the U’s Health Sciences’ LEAP Program.

The event, now in its fifth year, demonstrates to Utah’s legislators the scope of meaningful research activities in which U students are engaged during their “formative” undergraduate years-as well as the opportunities students have to be mentored by faculty members who are leading researchers in their fields.

Mechanical engineering seniors Charles Fisher and Danielle Putz will be at Thursday’s event to explain what they learned in a yearlong mechatronics class at the U. Fisher will be demonstrating the mechatronics robot he built last year for the 2004 “Rescue Robots” competition.

The contest’s challenge was to design and build robots that would fit into a 10- by 10- by 10-inch cube and that could find and rescue stuffed animal “victims.” Fisher’s design was a small tank that accomplished the task.

“The idea is that in a real-life, 9-11 situation, you could send a robot, rather than a person, into a downed building in which people are trapped. The robot would find and save humans,” says Fisher, who hopes to find a job creating the same kinds of designs.

“The class taught us how to design and build electronic sensors. We had to design circuits that interpreted information before it went into the computers. Another part of the learning was actually building a mechanical device that would do what you wanted it to do. The challenge for most of us was designing and building a robot that could get around or climb over things without tipping over. The robots were completely autonomous. They had to be able to run by themselves. It was very interesting work,” Fisher says. “I enjoyed it a lot.”

University Associate Vice President for Research Ron Pugmire, who chooses the students involved in the poster presentations from a large group of candidates, observes, “Given the importance that is now being placed on new technologies coming out of the nation’s research universities, it is heartening to note that not only do we develop new technology here at the University of Utah, but our undergraduate students have opportunities to participate in the development and training associated with these new technologies.”

Students selected to participate in “Research on the Hill” come from a variety of disciplines and represent a diverse range of topics.

“Bringing University students to the Legislature demonstrates to lawmakers that our students don’t wait until graduate school to become involved in exceptionally creative and complex research work. They are conducting cutting-edge research as undergraduates,” notes Nancy Lyon, assistant vice president for government affairs at the U.

All research projects are funded primarily through federal research grants or private industry and many are part of the highly visible Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the University of Utah.

Robert McDermott, staff scientist for visualization in the U’s Center for High Performance Computing, assists the students in creating their posters for presentation. “When you listen to these bright, high-energy students, you sense their enthusiasm for the work. And when the students take their presentations to ‘Research on the Hill,’ the legislators realize the importance of the work being done by these future scientists, engineers and researchers.”