FRI receives prestigious awards

Alay Shah

UT’s Freshman Research Initiative, or FRI, of the College of Natural Sciences received the Gold Award for STEM education and the Silver Award winner for “Presence Learning” in a worldwide competition billed as “the Oscars of Higher Education.”

These awards, which were given out in January, represent a commitment of UT’s faculty to academic learning outside the classroom and scientific research, said Stacia Rodenbusch, director of the FRI. 

“Students are doing real science alongside peers and faculty, and this hands-on training gives them a head start, helping them develop skills that are valuable not only in college, but beyond,” Rodenbusch said.

The Freshman Research Initiative, created in 2005, hosts 29 research labs spanning from biology to mathematics to astronomy. Each lab allows undergraduate students to conduct novel research.

Christine Sinatra, director of communications for the College of Natural Sciences, said FRI received the awards because of the program’s dedication to experiential learning or ‘learning by doing.’ Rodenbusch added that students in the program have been shown to be more likely to graduate with a natural science major.

“Research published in (CBE Life Sciences Education) last year found the Freshman Research Initiative significantly increases students’ likelihood of graduating and of staying in their STEM majors,” Rodenbusch said.

Students and undergraduate mentors participating in FRI agreed that the program has positively impacted them. 

“Research is a field that deals with failure more than success, and with the difficult transition students undertake from high school to college, it’s very advantageous to have a class that does not penalize you for failures, but instead teaches you to expect and embrace them,” said Ab Henry, a biology freshman and FRI student researcher. 

Nandeeta Patel, biochemistry junior, works as an undergraduate mentor for the program.

“Research has taught me more about patience, persistence and failure and I have no hesitation when I say that FRI and BioBricks Stream has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergrad so far,” Patel said. 

Rodenbusch said the initiative was just the first step towards more hands-on undergraduate programs.

“Shortly after he became President of UT, Gregory Fenves established Project 2021, which is aimed at better meeting the educational needs of our undergraduates, including creating more opportunities for experiential learning. In fact, he specifically mentioned FRI in his first ‘State of the University’ address,” Rodenbusch said.

She added that the program will help student researchers after graduation.

“In FRI, students develop these skills that not only make them great, resilient scholars, but that make them attractive candidates for jobs in today’s rapidly changing, collaborative workplace,”  Rodenbusch said.