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Switching GEARS

COVID-19 forced NC State’s academic programs online this spring, but also presented the Global Training Initiative with an opportunity to expand their reach. GTI’s Global Education, Academics, and Research Skills (GEARS) program — an academic, research and cultural exchange program that enables academically gifted domestic and international students to experience campus life and academic research at universities across North Carolina — was able to accept an increased number of students for their summer sessions after moving online.

“The bright spot in COVID-19 for GTI is that we’ve been able to expand the number of students participating in this program because of the format change,” said Ilin Misaras, assistant director for GTI. “We had 38 students participate in the on-campus program last July, but were able to open up more than 100 positions for the summer.”

The online GEARS program is the latest iteration of a 20+ year program at NC State that graduate faculty have used to identify and host potential international graduate applicants as short-term student researchers in their labs and research departments. The program provides students at NC State’s overseas university partners a taste of what it might be like to engage in a graduate research or academic program at NC State. 

Blue Wang, a student from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, found out about GEARS from a professor when he was searching for summer research opportunities. 

“I wanted to study at NC State due to the good reputation of the university,” said Wang. “Former exchange students from my school who studied at NC State spoke of the university’s high quality of research, teaching and the students there, and the quality of their statistics program is very strong. GEARS allowed me to learn more about statistics and gain a solid experience in how research work feels.”

Wang was one of 100 students to complete a summer online GEARS program, which recently expanded to include faculty and research labs from UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Wilmington. A fall session also took place from late August to late September.

Participating students came from all over the world, including various universities in China and the United States as well as Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Students from the U.S. universities included those from Saudi Arabia who were selected for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) scholarship program and North Carolina Central University students enrolled in the NCCU-NC State 3+2 program.

The online GEARS program included technological instruction, orientation, academic poster making and poster presentation skills workshops and a graduate school application workshop.

Pryor Gibson, a physics and engineering major at NCCU, got involved in GEARS due to the program’s relationship with NCCU’s Driving Research, Entrepreneurship, and Academics through the Mastery of STEM (DREAM STEM) project. By participating in the GEARS program, he hopes to further continue working with the network once he has transferred to NC State through the 3+2 program.

“NC State is one of the best engineering schools in the country, and participating in GEARS helped me gain more experience in coding, which will help me with electrical engineering in the future,” said Gibson. “Through my studies and experiences gained with GEARS, I aim to apply my physics and engineering background to signal processing to design better hearing aid technology to address the growing issue of hearing disorders.”

Because of the success of the online program, GEARS has expanded to include faculty and research labs from Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and UNC-Wilmington, and are in active discussion with other universities.

“The GEARs program is becoming a state-wide multi-institutional initiative led by the GTI,” said Michael Bustle, associate vice provost for Global Engagement and the director of the GTI. “We envision the program not only attracting students from our current partners but from the overseas partners of our North Carolina partners with the result that many more will learn about NC State. The GTI is currently in discussion with partners in Japan, China, the Philippines and Panama about semester-long collaborative research group projects that involve students from multiple partners who will team up to both solve a critical research problem together and learn and practice both cross-cultural and virtual team skills — a critical prerequisite for employability and leadership.” 

A critical component of the GEARS program is faculty mentorship. Students want to engage with researchers at top U.S. universities like NC State for academic and professional development reasons, and the GEARS program provides that opportunity. 

“The faculty mentor is the key to the whole program. Without a mentor, there is no program. The faculty mentor creates the project, guides the GEARS student and oversees all work,” said Timothy Rose, GTI program manager. “Professors get to work closely with an undergraduate student for 5-8 weeks. During this time, they can assess the students and the student gets to experience NC State. On several occasions, GEARS students ended up coming back to NC State for their graduate degree in the departments that hosted them during GEARS.”

Faculty also write an evaluation letter for students at the conclusion of the program. Faculty interested in participating in this program as a research mentor can contact GTI for more information regarding benefits, processes, and expectations.

In the future, GTI seeks to return GEARS to an in-person format, but for now, will continue to provide an exceptional online experience. The expansion of GEARS will allow for a rich learning experience for faculty and students alike.

“We also intend to leverage this program to help impact our own student community and to promote other opportunities for cultural exchange, learning, and connecting with others from around the globe,” said Bustle. “We are planning on hosting both virtual and on-campus GEARS programs throughout the year in 2021 — with more North Carolina partners hosting students on their campus or in virtual lab settings also. This is how we “Think and Do the Extraordinary – On-campus, Statewide and Globally.”