Folkers Rojas, a senior from Miami, got a job last summer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Right away, I said, ‘I can do that project. I’ve done a project like this before. I’ve done real-world applications where I’ve been the chief engineer and been responsible for setting a budget and getting the project done on time.’ The UROP experience has been such an asset.”
Rojas is one of thousands of students who has participated in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Pronounced yer’-op, the program makes it possible for undergraduates to participate with faculty in world-changing research. This year the program celebrates its 40th year.
UROP was founded in 1969 by the late Prof. Margaret MacVicar, an outstanding educator and scientist who served as MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education. At that time, Dr. Edwin H. Land, the inventor of instant photography, then a visiting professor at MIT, suggested that every student should have a faculty mentor and later backed his words with a gift to help make it possible. With encouragement from former MIT President Dr. Paul E. Gray, an early UROP champion — and with Land’s funding — MacVicar created one of the most remarkable academic innovations in MIT history.
“The greatest value of UROP is that it engages students in hands-on, experiential learning,” says Prof. Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research. “Much of the MIT education is passive lectures or problem sets. But you really need to get your hands dirty to understand how the world works.”
Over the years, UROP has educated generations of undergraduates — helping them to prepare for a career or graduate school, and offering countless research opportunities, including to freshmen. UROP students get to know faculty, learn about potential majors, and investigate areas of interest. It even has its own publication. When Sanjay Basu ’02 was an MIT freshman, he got the idea to create a journal to showcase undergraduate research and to give students a place to publish their findings. His dream became reality when the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal (MURJ) was launched in 2000. Now, it is a student-run publication, where scores of UROP students, as well as others, publish their work. “UROP is one of the crown jewels at MIT,” says Vandiver, who joined the MIT faculty in 1975, and who says that when UROP first began “lots of faculty were skeptical. They didn’t think an undergraduate could make a contribution to the research enterprise. And yet, if you tried to take UROP away from MIT today, you’d have a really angry faculty.”
Faculty now love working with undergrads because they’re so wonderfully creative and smart. Vandiver says: “I like the students’ unbridled enthusiasm. It’s stimulating and fun to have them around. “When a program is young and new, you just don’t have a track record long enough to call it a success. But after 40 years, you know you have something that’s special,” he says. “The program is old enough now that it’s time to really celebrate.”