Hooking Students on STEM: Let Them Actually Do Science (Part 1 of 4)

Science magazine’s latest issue (June 10, 2016) reports on a recently released study of the unique freshman science program, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), offered by the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas (UT), Austin. What makes the program unique is that science and math students immediately begin working on faculty-led research projects their first semester at the university. According to the University, “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 the universe for dark matter, screening potential drugs, studying viral evolutions, and developing new materials for energy production and storage.”

In other words, rather than waiting until they have their degrees and have slogged through dozens of courses in undergraduate and graduate studies, these students are making a contribution to ongoing research as freshmen. Since the program serves 25 percent of the entering freshman class or around 500 students each year (approximately 35 students per research stream), “it is providing a sizable army of fresh-faced scientists pounding away on real-world research problems.” 

Just imagine being one of those freshman students and doing this: In the DIY Diagnostics research stream, first-year students develop take-home diagnostic tools and apps used to detect disease and measure environmental quality. Or this: In the Bugs in Bugs research stream, students study the gut bacteria of pollinators and other insects to better understand the impact of microbial bacteria on the health of crucial species, such as bees. Or this: In the Biofuels research stream, undergraduates contribute to a major National Science Foundation-funded project to examine whether plants like switchgrass can be used for energy in place of oil.

Have a look.

But why is this important?

Beyond letting students do cool things, the program actually works. The research study of FRI provides “the first conclusive evidence that so-called active learning courses, which science educators have promoted for decades as a better way to teach than lectures and cookbook labs, can lower the high attrition rates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields at U.S. universities.”

The attrition rate from STEM programs at the university level has been a worrying trend for years now. Fewer than 40% of university students who begin as STEM majors actually complete a STEM degree by the time they graduate. This represents a huge loss to U.S. companies that rely on employing STEM trained graduates, while constraining the employment opportunities for many thousands of students every year. Even more tragic are the loss of the useful knowledge from new discoveries that only scientific research can provide and the squandering of human talent that remains undeveloped because traditional STEM classes have been so disengaging. This is particularly true for underrepresented groups in STEM: women, African Americans, and Latinos. What a loss to the U.S. and the world that this potential isn’t fully realized.

FRI Female StudentFRI Student Engaging in Research
Photo: Marsha Miller at the University of Texas at Austin

Enter FRI, UT’s Freshman Research Initiative. The program was created in 2005 to improve STEM retention rates. In a three-course sequence, the first class focusing on research methods, followed by two semesters of research in one of more than 24 fields of study,“… undergraduates are introduced to the world of hypothesis-driven research by a research educator, a non-tenure track faculty member, or a postdoctoral student.”

The program requires students to “problem-solve,” and according to Erin Dolan, the co-author of the study and executive director of Discovery Education in Science which oversees the FRI, “Unlike in a traditional lab course, where the next week they get a new problem, here the research stops if they don’t make progress. And they are graded on attempts to solve a problem rather than results, because in science you can’t anticipate the results.”

Long story short, after tens of thousands of students have gone through the FRI program, researchers have ample data for concluding that doing genuine research keeps students in science. 94% of FRI students graduated with a STEM degree versus 71% of the non-FRI students and 83% graduated within 6 years in contrast to only 66% of non-FRI students who did so. Even better, these results held for underrepresented groups who tend to leave STEM at a higher rate. Significantly, a quarter of the students entering in 2009, for example, were first-generation college attendees and a quarter of them were also Latino. In essence, the University of Texas has found a way to give students the best aspects of a science internship or apprenticeship but at a lower cost. Plus more students are able to participate, insuring that more STEM graduates emerge at the end and with research experience already under their belts.

FRI Students Begin Their Research Careers Early by Working with Experienced Scientists
FRI Students Begin Their Research Careers Early 
Photo: Marsha Miller at the University of Texas at Austin

In fact, some of those young scientists have already accomplished important work. Rachel Graubard and Vassal Shah, for example, both alumni of the Freshman Research Initiative’s DIY Diagnostics stream, have created two apps to help patients detect skin cancer at home. To tantalize you even more, other streams student researchers work in include bioprospecting, cyber security, functional genomics, big data, and computational design. Clearly, this is a model that should be replicated nationwide.

So why, in a blog focused primarily on elementary STEM education, am I sharing the results of a successful university program?

Reading about the Freshman Research Initiative made me wonder if a similar approach isn’t every bit as compelling for younger students. As proponents of hands-on, inquiry-based STEM, for having students do science rather than just reading about it in a textbook, the STEM Institute team isn’t all that surprised by the UT results. We are convinced that if students have the chance to do science early in their education, they will be more inclined to continue with  STEM in high school and college. Doing real science is engaging, and the concepts learned in the process are more memorable, becoming part of the young scientist’s deep understanding of how the world works — and if that work makes a contribution to their own community, so much the better. Having an impact on their world is empowering and builds students’ sense of confidence in themselves and their connection to others.

In upcoming posts, I’ll introduce you to some remarkable sixth graders and the grown up project they conducted several decades ago, share a project from this current school year in which students incorporated math, technology, and engineering to realize a dream they had for their school, and say more about why the conceptual design behind the successful FRI program has relevance for younger students.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.







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Filed under Freshman Research Initiative, FRI, STEM education, Uncategorized, University of Texas

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