The James Scholar program gives you an opportunity to do something fun and exciting as an undergraduate. While anyone can in theory pursue interesting ideas outside the scope of their day jobs, very few people actually do. If you go into graduate school or academia, you can work along similar lines, but you will also have to deal with other concerns, such as funding, publication, getting a degree done, etc. Thus, you're unlikely to ever have another opportunity as flexible and open as you do as an undergraduate. The James Scholar program can serve as a forcing function for you, giving you deadlines to encourage you to take advantage of your opportunity.
Why should you take advantage of this opportunity? A couple of years ago, the alumni group for an organization that runs a program in which I participated in high school asked me to update my biographical data. The forms wanted to know what level of honors I earned with various degrees. The answer? I don't know. I don't care. I could probably figure it out, but it's not worth my time, since no one else will care, either. The forms were clearly designed by someone who had just finished a degree and lacked perspective on what matters. On the other hand, I greatly enjoyed my undergraduate research and thesis and routinely use it as a source of anecdotes. Someday soon I'll probably tell my kids about it, and one day I'll perhaps tell my grandkids about it. It was fun, and I'm proud of it. What level of honors did I get for it? Who cares?
So: ten or fifteen years from now, you can either tell people about the really cool thing that you did while you were at U of I, or you can tell people that you were a Jimmy Scholar or a John Scholar or something like that. You won't remember, most likely, and they won't care.
As a James Scholar advisor, I will try to make you take advantage of your opportunity. Keep in mind that you're not binding yourself permanently as a sophomore, you're just brainstorming and introspecting. You can change your mind (and your contract) later, if you want. It's quite easy to procrastinate and end up thinking, "Gee, I should spend some time figuring out what I want to do." One day, your next thought will be, "Oh, wait, I'm graduating. Too bad." If you want my signature, I require you to give your objective some thought as a sophomore. In particular, I refuse to sign contracts that I view as wasting your opportunity, such as: "a minor in X." Don't worry: if you want to waste your opportunity, you can find someone else to sign, or you could just drop out of the program--the difference between wasting the opportunity and not being a James Scholar won't matter in the long run.
Now back to the positive spin. You want to come up with a project that piques your curiosity and builds your excitement. For EE students, I suggest using the senior design project as a target. Think of something exciting and challenging that you would like to do in your last year. Maybe you'd like to develop robots and control software to map an new environment by combining camera data with GPS-based localization. Maybe you want to design and build a more accurate lie detector. Maybe you want to design a motorized mountainboard with fail-safe wireless control. Maybe you want to develop an audio environment to support voice scrambling with natural-sounding results. Once you've thought of a goal that interests you, ask yourself what information you need to be able to accomplish your goal. Which classes should you take? What material will you have to learn outside? Will any of the faculty be interested in your work as a research project, or just out of general interest? Your James Scholar advisor can help to answer some of these questions, and can also help you to sharpen hazy goals, but you should come up with some ideas yourself, as you'll need to do something that you like in order to do something outstanding.
For CompE students, 411 takes the place of the senior design project, so you don't have as much flexibility. You can, of course, go beyond the scope of the processor design project, but if you want to work on characterization of 20 nm devices, you're going to have to do it outside of 411. I do still recommend that you try to do a project, but you should consider opportunities with faculty, or at least try to find someone who can advise you on an independent study project (397/497) or thesis (499). You might also consider ADSL (395).
Speaking of ADSL and senior design, if you read this blurb before the semester in which your contract is actually due, you should take the opportunity to go look at what your peers have done. ADSL has an open house every semester, and there are lots of demos at EOH in spring semesters.
Most of the faculty have undergraduates in their research groups. As one of our best students, I also encourage you to explore opportunities for research in areas that interest you. The best approach is perhaps to take a class or two in the area and to talk with the faculty member teaching the class. Explorations seminars are another avenue, as are independent study projects, but most faculty members like to gather an impression of people before committing significant amounts of time.
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written 7-Mar-03, new course #'s 26-Apr-07, anecdote added 11-Mar-09, Andres' video added 17-Oct-11