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Changing the Game: The FRI Revolution

Changing the Game: The FRI Revolution
A quick rundown of the first half-decade of the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) reads more like a college administrator’s wish list than like an actual university program.
A quick rundown of the first half-decade of the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) reads more like a college administrator’s wish list than like an actual university program.

  • More than 500 first-year students doing original scientific research every year.

  • More than 20 unique, faculty-led, year-long “research streams,” which engage students in original research on topics like Computational Intelligence in Game Design, Brain Tumor Pathology, Exploring the Universe with White Dwarf Stars, and Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis.

  • Multi-million dollar grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

  • Better retention of students across all ethnic groups, economic strata, and at-risk categories.

  • Increased participation in research by Hispanic and African-American students.

  • More than 50 papers published in peer-reviewed academic journals, co-authored by undergraduates.

  • More students proceeding to advanced degrees in the sciences, with particularly striking increases in the numbers of women and first-generation students.

When FRI director Sarah Simmons tells colleagues at other universities about the program, its scale and ambition is so out-sized that they often don’t get it right away. They assume that it’s similar to research-based classes at other universities.

Biologist Karen Browning's "Biobrick" stream.

“At first, most people don't believe we're actually doing it,” says Simmons, assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences. “They say, well, lots of places are doing large-scale undergraduate research. But if you look more closely, you see that what’s unique about FRI is that it involves large numbers of first-year students, drawn from all backgrounds and preparation levels, who are given a multi-semester experience that's integrated into their degree plan and involves real faculty-generated research projects.”

When they finally do understand, says Simmons, the next reaction tends to be disbelief. How is it possible for the college to support such an effort? Where does the money come from? How are so many students recruited? Why would faculty and graduate students want to devote so much of their time to managing freshmen in the lab? And how are groups of first-year students able to conduct meaningful research when they haven’t taken upper level science courses?

There are specific answers to these specific questions. The money, for instance, comes mostly from the college and from big NSF and HHMI grants. The students are recruited (vigorously) at summer orientation. The faculty and graduate students who run the streams have been enticed by the opportunity to teach in a new way; by the prospect of 20 or 30 new pairs of hands in the lab to further their research; and, in some cases, by the advantage that the FRI’s prestige can confer on a grant proposal they hope to get funded. And the freshmen are able to do good research because, it turns out, they’re smart, and smart students, with the support of engaged faculty, can do good science.

The bigger answer to a bigger question—how did so many currents converge to produce such a tidal wave of change?—is that the college was ready to cast the scientific gaze back upon itself. From the dean on down to the undergraduates themselves, the College of Natural Sciences was ready to commit to making its methods for teaching science as modern as the science coming out of its faculty labs. And that commitment is transforming the way that science is taught at The University of Texas at Austin. It’s also pointing the way, if the rest of the nation is smart enough to take notice, toward a future filled with greater numbers of more diverse and better trained scientists.

[pullquote]I think programs like the FRI are going to be the salvation of under-graduate education at the big research universities.[/pullquote]

“I think programs like the FRI are going to be the salvation of undergraduate education at the big research universities,” says David Laude, senior associate dean for academic affairs. “We have to confront the fact that teaching content knowledge, especially in technical fields, isn’t enough anymore to justify the expense of going to a place like UT. It’s not obvious, anymore, why walking into a room and watching someone talk to you for an hour is necessarily any better than watching a video of that person, or working through the content with a good online module. When you look at something like the Freshman Research Initiative, however, it’s obvious that it’s something you can't do using technology. 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.”

From Neophyte to Scientist

In order to effect this transformation of neophyte science students into working scientists, the FRI begins in the fall semester of their first year with a research methods course. The students are introduced to the basic concepts underlying the scientific method as well as to the nuts-and-bolts of working in a lab. They’re also—and this is key—expected to figure a lot of these things out on their own, by working through experimental challenges given to them by their instructors. They get help, from faculty as well as from undergraduate teaching assistants and mentors, but the heavy intellectual lifting is done by the students, who learn precisely by overcoming confusion and ignorance.

“It teaches the way we know works,” says Simmons. “The science of learning has advanced a lot in the last few decades, and although lectures can work when students already have a box in which to put the information they’re getting, when it’s new information that students are trying to assimilate, it’s active learning that’s best. You need the physicality. You need the challenge, the failure, the recovery and the confidence that's built from going through that cycle and from understanding at every point along the way why you need to know what you’re trying to discover.”

After that first semester of research methods, students are sorted into roughly 20 different research streams based on their preferences, majors and the slots available. They then spend the next two semesters, and often the summer in between, doing research in dedicated FRI labs. During this time they’re taught related content material by the stream leaders and the Research Educators (who are typically post-doctoral fellows). They’re guided and mentored by paid undergraduate mentors, most of whom are alumni of those FRI streams. After they’ve completed the FRI sequence, many of the students move on to do research in faculty labs, to internships with industry and to FRI mentor positions.

Jump Into the Stream

The  science the students are doing depends on the stream. In computer scientist Peter Stone’s “Autonomous Vehicles” stream, for instance, students are developing software that allows cars to drive themselves. In biologist Karen Browning’s “Biobrick” stream, students are synthesizing gene fragments and using molecular cloning tools to piece them together like Legos. In “Virtual Drug Screening,” biochemist Jon Robertus helps students use computers to sift through libraries of chemical structures and predict which ones may bind most effectively to a potential drug target

In each stream, the underlying ethos is integration. Reading assignments and lectures coincide with relevant experiments in the lab. Setbacks or triumphs in the lab can lead to changes in the classroom. The broad goals are set by the faculty stream leader, the day-to-day operations are managed by the Research Educator, and the discoveries are made by the students. Those discoveries, in turn, can feed back into the research that the faculty and Research Educators are doing.

In chemist Eric Anslyn’s “Supramolecular Sensors” stream, students have developed a brand new chemical array that distinguishes between different red wine varietals based on the nature of the tannins in the wine samples. The array, and the science that’s been learned in the process of creating it, have not only led to a publication in a top tier scientific journal, they’ve informed Anslyn’s broader research project.

[pullquote]In chemist Eric Anslyn’s “Supramolecular Sensors” stream, students have developed a brand new chemical array that distinguishes between different red wine varietals.[/pullquote]

“Wine is a good test bed because it’s such a complex substance,” says Anslyn, “and when you say that a particular sample you’re given is a zinfandel, that tells you something about the genome of the grape. What we do in my graduate level research group is probe whether we can do the same kinds of tests for distinguishing disease states. Can we detect subtle differences in cell morphology, or in protein composition, that are the result of genetic changes brought on by various diseases? Can we pick up those changes just like we picked up subtle changes in tannins?”

For Ansyln, the FRI has been a success on every level. It’s been satisfying as a teacher. It’s advanced his research. It’s been a great training ground for undergraduate chemistry researchers, many of whom have fanned out to fill the labs of Anslyn and his colleagues in the department. It’s dramatically expanded the types of students the college is equipping to pursue careers in science. And the stream may even, in its next iteration, head off into methodological territories where Anslyn himself hasn’t yet tread.

“Right now we make these arrays using a solid phase peptide synthesizer,” says Anslyn. “There's another technique called phage display, which involves using bacteriophages to make the peptides. We've never done phage display in my research group at all. We don’t know how to do it, but we’re considering having these undergraduates learn how to do phage display and then turn around and teach us. And then, perhaps, my whole group can adopt it.”

It’s this fundamentally experimental attitude, says Simmons, which has helped the Freshman Research Initiative grow so quickly. Streams are constantly reinventing themselves. The composition of the funding of each stream shifts depending on what the college needs and what resources the faculty member has available. Professors have been able to modify the basic stream structure to plug more easily into their own needs, with some faculty, for instance, creating “mini-streams” of only a few students, who do their research in the professor’s main lab. And some professors are simply relying on the FRI as a kind of seal of approval, trusting that students who’ve been through the program will adjust more easily to research in their labs.

The Future of FRI

Looking forward, says Simmons, the FRI faces two major challenges. One is expansion. Simmons would like to see more streams, across a wider range of departments (most of the streams, right now, are in chemistry and biology). She’d also like to see as many as 1,500 freshman (about three-fourths of each entering class) participating in the FRI every year.

The other, related challenge is sustainability. The FRI is expensive. Not as expensive on a per-student basis as smaller scale programs, like the NSF’s summer research grants for undergraduates, but expensive compared to what it’s replacing, which are traditional lecture-style courses and their lab components. The expense has been met, so far, thanks to major outside grants and consistent support from the college, but sustaining and even expanding that level of support, says Simmons, is going to require a lot of adaptability, some luck, and a willingness to expand our sense of what the core aspects of a scientific education need to be.

Biochemist Andy Ellington's "Aptamer Stream"

To David Laude, who was also part of the team that created the FRI five years ago, comparing the cost of an FRI course to the cost of a lecture and lab course is missing the point. The FRI’s benefits, he says, extend far beyond even the value that the students derive from the experience.

“If they are in fact generating new knowledge,” he says, “then that’s a good in itself. If they’re generating publications that lead to grants being funded, then that contributes to the university's well-being overall. And the success of the program contributes to the reputation of the university. I think people appreciate that this is something special. This is transforming. When people talk about what they're doing in Texas that really is different than what everyone else is doing, they don't just look at UTeach now. They look at the FRI and appreciate that it’s something that they should be thinking about and trying to adopt.”
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Friday, 27 January 2023

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