Teaching through Research: the Freshman Research Initiative

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Title of Abstract: Teaching through Research: the Freshman Research Initiative

Name of Author: Sarah Simmons
Author Company or Institution: The University of Texas at Austin
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.)
Keywords: first-year, laboratory, integrated, research, faculty-led

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Ruth I. Shear, University of Texas at Austin

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Incredible potential exists at large research institutions to create a generation of science-minded innovators through undergraduate research, yet current models have limitations of scale, and often, access. The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) at UT-Austin is a faculty-initiated reinvention of our undergraduate research paradigm that aligns our research and teaching missions, increases the number and diversity of students engaged in research and significantly impacts student success and engagement in science. Our goals for this reformation of undergraduate education included: 1) attract and retain students in the sciences, 2) improve undergraduate academic success, science literacy and critical thinking skills, 3) bridge the gap between education and research by using research as a vehicle for teaching, 4) create an environment in which the effects of research training can be assessed, 5) drive curriculum reform, and 6) enhance collaborations that promote education through undergraduate research.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Each year, freshmen are recruited into an intensive eighteen month set of degree-program courses that incorporate critical thinking, interaction with faculty, hands-on experimentation, data interpretation, student presentation, publication and peer mentoring. Our model incorporates cutting-edge faculty research amenable to large-scale freshman training and experimentation, after which students are experienced in a broad range of techniques. Originally developed in biology and chemistry, the FRI program has been running and expanding for 7 years and now involves projects in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, computer science. This program now offers research experiences to over 800 students each year, over 1/3 of each incoming class in the College of Natural Sciences.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: By implementing this model at such a large scale, across disciplines, we have created an environment for assessment of the effects of undergraduate research on student achievement. Each year, we identify comparison groups from among the general student population and then track them along with all students participating in FRI until graduation. For each cohort, we evaluate institutional data, college level data and program specific data. Additionally, recent bivariate and multivariate analyses of each incoming cohort of College undergraduates has allowed for an even more in-depth analysis of student success data related to FRI while allowing us to control for student and program participation variables.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The core principle behind the Freshman Research Initiative is the merging of the educational and research missions of the University to benefit the undergraduate students and the production of an exportable model for other large research institutions. Among other things, FRI student data shows: 1) improved retention at the University, College and Major levels for all cohorts, 2) improved attraction and retention at University, College and Major levels for most under-represented groups, 3) improved GPA across all under-represented groups, 4) increased scientific activities and success, and 5) the effects of FRI remain after students finish the program. This project has already improved student attraction to and retention in the sciences at UT-Austin, significantly impacted the success of the students in our program, been a force for change in the science curriculum, and impacted the culture for undergraduate research and education at our university.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Our program has encountered challenges related to: 1) the traditional separation of infrastructures that support research and teaching (purchasing, appointments, space designation, etc.), 2) multifaceted barriers to increasing participation among underrepresented groups, 3) assessment of a maturing participant set, and 4) institutionalization and sustainability. As the program has matured, these challenges have been addressed by developing new protocols and strategies that recognize the dual research/teaching nature of our FRI Research Stream resources (HR appointments, space, safety certification, for example), by implementing multi-layered recruitment efforts, by shifting assessment strategies, and by designing a funding model that flexibly incorporates multiple sources of support

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Initial dissemination efforts included web and print materials as well as presentation at regional and national conferences. Current and future dissemination efforts will aim to extend the catalytic effect of the changes occurring at UT-Austin by helping to lower the activation energy required for faculty and administrators to implement integration of education and research at their own campus. We are developing several mechanisms to assist other institutions: print and web materials, a FRI Conference (the first annual held May 2013), and support for program development and proposal preparation - through which other institutions can develop programs that consider their own institutional students, goals, resources and strengths and allow them to teach through their research.

Acknowledgements: We have been fortunate to receive funding for the Freshman Research Initiative from both the National Science Foundation (NSF # CHE-0629136) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI #52005907, #52006958).