Freshman Research Initiative improves STEM major retention, graduation rates

Van Nguyen

The Freshman Research Initiative in the College of Natural Sciences helps improve both STEM major retention and the graduation rates for students involved in the program, according to a recent study.

The study, published in CBE-Life Sciences Education, found the program increased STEM retention by approximately 25 percent. The FRI program helps students get more hands-on experience through research streams which integrate both the lab and classroom to provide freshmen their first experience with research in a university environment. The program began in 2005 with three research streams. Today, there are currently 29 options from which students can choose and over 170 publications with student co-authors.

Stacia Rodenbusch, director of the FRI program, said she believes the FRI program offers a unique experience unlike any lecture or lab.

“Instead of sitting in a lecture class, listening to an expert talk about what it means to do science, FRI students get to work side-by-side with their peers to do experiments and make new scientific discoveries themselves,” Rodenbusch wrote in an email. “They get to find out what it is like to be a scientist, rather than just hearing about it, reading about it, or talking about it.”

For freshmen in CNS who are unsure of what they want to do, the FRI program may be able to help.

UT alumnus Alex Bard, former FRI student and mentor, said the program helped him discover what he wanted to do after completing his undergraduate degree.

“I knew I liked chemistry, but as a freshman I didn’t know what kind of chemistry I liked,” Bard said. “I was in the Functional Materials stream, which is inorganic synthesis, and by doing that research, I found out that I really enjoy it, and now I’m going to grad school in inorganic.”

There are currently approximately 900 students participating per year and approximately 200 on the waitlist. Funding and space are the two biggest obstacles the program faces, said Erin Dolan, executive director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science.

“Space can usually be addressed with some creative thinking and resources-sharing. The funds are the larger issue — we simply cannot expand without an additional influx of funds,” wrote Dolan in an email. “We are working closely with Development teams at the College and University level to garner support that would allow us to serve all interested students.”