Holly Golecki leads undergraduate research opportunity for ARISE students


Huan Song

Bioengineering Teaching Assistant Professor Holly Golecki has been awarded funding to lead a project titled, "GIANT Building Confidence and Increasing Engagement through Undergraduate Research." This project was co-proposed with Emily Davidson, coordinator for ARISE and Student Success and Ivan Favila, assistant director for the Center for Academic Resources in Engineering (CARE).

The Grassroots Initiatives to Address Needs Together (GIANT) program seeks to enable teams of students, postdocs, staff, and faculty to propose and implement research-based initiatives in the areas of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. 

This project aims to introduce undergraduate research opportunities (UROs) to historically marginalized engineering students who are a part of the Academic Redshirt in Science and Engineering (ARISE) program. Illinois is a part of a six-university consortium awarded a five-year, $5 million grant by the National Science Foundation to implement a bridge year for incoming freshmen so they have the foundation needed for a rigorous engineering course load. 

Golecki herself was a first generation college student. "I started research  in my sophomore year as an undergrad at Drexel University and the mentors I had in my research group were integral to my success," she said. "I knew this is the type of work I wanted to do when I took the faculty position at Illinois." 

“Participation in UROs increases students’ understanding, confidence, and awareness of opportunities in STEM fields and their desire to pursue advanced degrees," said Golecki. Approximately 45% of undergraduate students at the Grainger College of Engineering participate in research on or off campus. Comparatively, less than 1% of students from the three cohorts of Illinois’ ARISE program  have engaged in research. 

"Research may seem intimidating or that you need some prior knowledge to get started," she said. "That's not true, but that's a common belief for first generation students who may not have any examples of family members doing research." 

Additionally, ARISE students may have high financial needs and often choose part-time work on campus over research or STEM related experiences.
Golecki wants to help break down these barriers to entry in research and help to boost the confidence in ARISE students. Funding through the GIANT program will ensure that students are paid for their research and can use this experience as a launch pad into larger research groups.  

Participating ARISE undergraduates will work with Golecki on a soft robotics project developing novel actuators and flexible control systems for biomedical applications. "The field of soft robotics is fairly new so there's a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of novel contributions that students can make," said Golecki. 

Students will build skills in 3D printing, Computer-aided design (CAD) and other key technical foundations. Golecki also plans to take students to guest speaker series and involve them in writing academic papers and attending conferences. 

Reflecting on her own undergraduate education, Golecki said, "My research group gave me a place where I felt like I belonged. I found a lot of value in my research experience. I hope to be able to provide that experience for these students."