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The College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, the largest college at one of the largest public research universities in the nation, currently enrolls 11,200 students each year (>26% underrepresented ethnicities) and produces 1,600 STEM graduates annually, more than double the number that it graduated 12 years ago. This doubling has far outpaced growth of the incoming freshman class, and can be attributed largely to increased investment in both academic communities and research experiences through the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). In 2005, we developed and piloted FRI to ensure that students participated in science research early enough to influence their academic and career interests and their persistence in science. FRI consists of a three-semester research experience through which students earn credit towards science and mathematics majors. The sequence includes a one-semester course in scientific inquiry and research methods, and two semesters of course-based research mentored by a postdoctoral level "research educator" and related to faculty members' ongoing research (called "research streams"). With previous support from HHMI, we have been able to expand FRI to involve 800+ lower-division undergraduate students per year in original research activities as an alternative to entry-level laboratory courses.

FRI has seen a significant increase in research participation and subsequent persistence among populations underrepresented in the STEM pipeline. This program has permanently altered the culture of our college and resulted in concrete curricular change across all departments. It has begun to serve as a model to inspire other institutions to look beyond traditional barriers to large-scale undergraduate research. In addition, we have made significant progress toward sustainability of these efforts. Evaluation of FRI has demonstrated that the program forges strong and early pathways into research that attract and retain students in science and math, engages large numbers of students in original research that is publishable or otherwise has impact outside the classroom, and improves undergraduate academic success.

Even operating at this scale, however, FRI only serves ~40% of incoming freshmen and far too few transfer students. The current award will support a new phase of research and development aimed at making research experiences more accessible to transfer students, a currently underserved but significant sector of our undergraduate population, as well as upper-level students who missed the opportunity to participate in FRI as freshman. Specifically, we will establish a comprehensive infrastructure to support transfer and upper-level student involvement in research. We will tailor recruitment into research streams and put in place advising and community-building strategies to reach and support transfer students. We will further integrate research experiences into the curriculum to meet the needs of transfer students. We will develop accelerated pathways for transfer and upper-level students to integrate into research streams. We will support transfer and upper-level students in continuing their research through summer internships and advanced research streams. We anticipate that these activities will (1) broaden access to research experiences that are integrated into the undergraduate curriculum, (2) increase involvement of transfer students in undergraduate research, (3) improve community college STEM student involvement in research, and (4) improve persistence of non-FRI participants and transfer students.

For More Information

Sarah Eichhorn, PhD
University of Texas at Austin
Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science
103 W. 24th St., PAI 3.04E
Austin, TX 78712-1026

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