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An MIT Original, the Oft Replicated UROP Program Reaches 30 Years

By Matthew Palmer

Everyone at MIT knows what UROP is, right?

It is a corporate internship program in Australia. It was almost sliced in half in 1994. In the future, a student consulting company could hook you up with a two week long project. Maybe there’s more than meets the eye. As UROP turns thirty, it is very much the newest old idea on campus.

The thirtieth anniversary of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) will begin February third with an afternoon celebration in Lobby 7. The day after will be “MacVicar Day” with speeches and demonstrations in honor of the UROP founder.

In 1957, Dr. Edward Land’s famous “Generation of Greatness” speech helped to inspire the creation of UROP. The former president of Polaroid said, “I believe each incoming freshman must be started at once on his own research project if we are to preserve his secret dream of greatness and make it come true.” Margaret MacVicar took that idea and created what Dean of Undergraduate Research Kim Vandiver called “a hallmark of education at MIT.”

MacVicar officially began UROP in 1969 with just 25 students. The idea of matching undergraduates with faculty members to conduct research was very new at the time. “[UROP] received quite a lot of press,” said current UROP staff member Melissa Martin. “It was groundbreaking.”

Since then, the program has grown dramatically. Over three-quarters of MIT undergraduates have participated. Administrators said UROP’s popularity is due to a variety of reasons. Students can gain experience in researching and learn valuable skills. Michael Bergren, Assistant Director of UROP, said that students, “get to know faculty in a different way than in lecture.” Bergren also cites the program’s “flexibility.” Students are free to do research in any department, regardless of their major. Martin said UROPers are “a step ahead of their peers” because of the “real world experience” gained from participating.

Over 20 percent of those involved in a research project will publish. Others use the program to begin their thesis work. Some participants have later become MIT faculty members, and take on UROP students themselves.

The fight to save UROP

UROP has not been without its challenges. In 1994, new federal accounting rules doubled the cost for faculty to have undergraduate researchers. MIT would be forced to pay fringe benefits for students in the UROP program. Bergren said UROP officials of the time “thought it would have a traumatic effect” and would lead to large cuts in the program.

Despite the funding overhead the program has continued to thrive.

UROP goes international

Many universities have started programs similar to MIT’s. Boston University gives undergraduates the chance to work directly with faculty mentors in their research. The University of Minnesota has a program where students compete for the chance to receive pay as they help a faculty member. Michigan State University offers its freshman and sophomores research opportunities, peer study groups, and guest lecturers. Among others, Washington University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of California, Irvine have similar opportunities. Not surprisingly, all of these programs are called “UROP.”

The influence of UROP has traveled overseas as well. The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London offers a similar program with the same name. Martin and Bergren remember when they met with a representative from the Royal Melbourne Institute in Australia. They had a program called UROP, though it is more a corporate internship program.

Looking to the future

Is UROP likely to see changes over its next 30 years? “We don't want to meddle with a good thing,” said Vandiver. “It’s was a good idea and it still is.” UROP might be growing, though. MIT will start its “Campaign for the Future” on November 6 to try and raise $1 billion. The UROP program is seeking to increase its endowment to $15 million, with half of that going toward paid UROPs.

The UROP mentoring program started in 1993 had “mild success” said Martin. Freshmen match up with upperclassmen during IAP and learn how to conduct research. Last year, participation in the program doubled.

On the drawing board is a new way “to make it easier for students to get their first UROP” according to Vandiver. He said a “student consulting company” would be set up. When faculty members wanted help with a short-term project, the company could match them up with interested undergrads. These projects would be for students who already had the skills needed and wouldn’t last as long as regular UROPs.

This could make it easier for students to follow in the footsteps of tens of thousands before them and participate in the unique UROP experience.