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Fish Labs: Students Innovating Early

Fish Labs: Students Innovating Early

The Freshman Research Initiative is increasing graduation rates and encouraging students to further their education in the sciences in graduate school.

FRI.jpgBiochemist Andy Ellington's "Aptamer Stream"As a species, Homo sapiens are nothing if not innovative. We’ve harnessed fire, forged steel, cured diseases, and built lightning-fast computers. Heck, we can fly.

In the United States, our scientists, engineers, and mathematicians have helped make us the most innovative country in the world. But there is growing concern, from U.S. presidents to small business owners to college administrators, that we aren’t producing enough new innovators; that we’re in danger of losing our competitive edge.

So how do we develop innovators? The College of Natural Sciences has become more and more convinced that students who start researching early — asking big questions and using cutting-edge tools to look for answers — will be more likely to get hooked on research and pursue careers as inventors and economic drivers. The program it created five years ago to implement this idea, the Freshman Research Initiative, is already seeing results.

“I think programs like the Freshman Research Initiative are going to be the salvation of undergraduate education at the big research universities,” says David Laude, the college’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. “It’s teaching a person to think independently and creatively. It’s training scientists to be real scientists, and it’s doing it on a broad scale at the undergraduate level in ways that no one has ever achieved before.”

The program is unique in that science and math students entering the university start working right away on faculty-led research projects. They work in small groups in labs on a list of projects that continues to grow every year. These 18- and 19-year-olds immerse themselves in “research streams,” and there they swim for three semesters, wading deeply into projects such as programming artificially intelligent cars, searching for dark matter, screening potential drugs, studying viral evolution, and developing new materials for energy production and storage.[pullquote]Around 35 percent more students graduate with a science or math degree if they participate in the Freshman Research Initiative.[/pullquote]

This young program is now serving 25 percent of the entering freshman class, around 500 students — a sizable army of fresh-faced scientists pounding away on real-world research problems. And the data about these students are compelling.

Many of the 2,000 or so undergrads who enter the college every year don’t stick with science or math. It’s a challenging curriculum. But the Freshman Research Initiative is increasing student retention. Around 35 percent more students graduate with a science or math degree if they participate in the program. A quarter of students entering in 2009 were first generation, and a quarter were also Hispanic.

The initiative is also helping students remain in science, technology, engineering, and math fields after graduation. Thirty-two percent of students who entered the Freshman Research Initiative in 2006 headed for graduate school. That’s compared with only nine percent of the other students in that same entering class.

The program’s benefits extend far beyond the value that the students derive from the experiential value, says Laude. The program is good for the university’s research endeavor and for the future of the State of Texas. Plus, it encourages research careers in students that have thus far been underrepresented.

“I think people appreciate that this is something special,” he says. “This is transforming.”

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