Freshmen of all walks deserve expanded research options

Laura Hallas

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Freshman Research Initiative, better known as FRI. The College of Natural Sciences’ initiative has been a wild success, replicated throughout the country. However, the program shouldn’t be limited to the natural sciences. This model should be expanded to include other colleges within the University.

A group of UT faculty and administration founded the program with two goals in mind: to have as many undergraduate students involved in research, and to have that as soon as possible.

Since its founding, the program has expanded from 15 students to 900, the largest undergraduate research program in the country. A full report on the program’s effects will be released in the coming months, but it is already being credited with increasing participants’ GPAs, as well as keeping CNS students on track to complete their original STEM degree.

The success of the model has resulted in its application across universities both in the UT system and countrywide. However, the program has yet to be replicated across other parts of UT-Austin. 

FRI isn’t the only freshman-oriented research program on campus. The College of Liberal Arts’ Research Apprenticeship Program offers personalized research mentorships to students. 

“We are really trying to make [research] more at the forefront of the liberal arts experience,” said Kristen Jones Harris, Student Success Programs director. “It’s an issue that’s important to Dean Musick, so you will be seeing a lot more information regarding undergraduate enrichment from the college.”

However, most research still operates under the traditional assumption of one student, one professor. FRI has developed research streams, or project topics, where a professor leads about 25 students in research related to the professor’s expertise, allowing more students to gain experience. This is the aspect of the program that is the most revolutionary and the most promising.

Though FRI is currently only accessible to CNS students, it is easy to envision expansion into other colleges. There are already a few research streams that extend beyond the traditional sciences like biology or chemistry, such as the cyber security stream that has paired with computer science. Senior Vice Provost David Laude said that he has conversed with professors from other colleges, including the liberal arts college, about topics for research. 

“We would go to professors’ offices, and ask if there was a freshman stream that you could have 25 people do related to your research, a true independent inquiry and they say no, that’s ridiculous,” Laude said. “Invariably, the very next day there would be a phone call saying ‘I just thought of something.’ All it took was a faculty member thinking just a little bit differently, and suddenly they have that great idea.”

Underclassman research is the future of large public flagship universities like UT. Experts like Laude hail experiential learning for the valuable career preparation and general enrichment of the college experience it provides.

UT’s status as a research university puts us on the forefront of the experiential learning movement. Ten years with FRI has proven the feasibility and benefits of large scale underclassmen research. We have the model down to a science and now the rest of the University can benefit.

Hallas is a Plan II freshman from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.