Students should have greater say in Freshman Research Initiative stream placement

Maya H.

UT’s renowned Freshman Research Initiative, housed in the College of Natural Sciences, is the largest undergraduate research program in the nation. With over 29 different concentrations or “streams,” FRI equips its 900 yearly participants with the skills to perform research in dozens of STEM fields.

However, the Stream Sort process is not up to par with the program’s prestige.

Every year, FRI participants are placed into a stream for the entire spring semester where they learn research techniques that cater to a specific field.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the research opportunities available to undergraduate CNS students, whose career goals hinge on involvement in research, the initiative must do everything it can to boost students’ chances of landing in a stream that caters to their needs.

This includes optimizing the Stream Sort form, the set of questions students answer to be placed into a stream.

Currently, the Stream Sort form asks students to select their top three streams and two backup streams. Students are then given less than 400 characters to explain their choices.

400 characters is not enough room for students to fully describe why they picked their respective streams. This also makes it difficult to describe any concerns that may render certain streams inadequate.

A biochemistry freshman, who wishes to remain anonymous out of concern that their standing in the program may be affected, said they are unhappy with the stream they were placed in. They blame this on Stream Sort form.

“I did rank (the streams), but that took away from my explanation,” they said.

As someone with no experience in research, they were hoping to be placed in the BioBricks or Aptamer streams, which are known for fostering a strong sense of community. They were not able to indicate this on the form because they ran out of characters.

“Instead, I got into the Virtual Cures research stream,” they said. “From what I heard, it doesn’t have as strong of a support system. That’s something I’m worried about. Even though I come from a solid academic background, I have no experience doing research.”

FRI leadership declined to comment on how their sorting system works, as it is an internal process.

“I can say that student preference is our primary goal for FRI stream placement,” FRI communications coordinator Elizabeth Ilardi said in an email.

Additionally, FRI does have procedures students can use to switch streams, especially if their placement conflicts with their class or work schedules. While I commend FRI for accommodating students who are not content with their assigned stream, giving students more room to explain their choices would reduce their likelihood of falling into this category in the first place.

I understand it’s impossible to place every student in their top stream, but FRI can give students more room to explain which streams best support their needs. Increasing the character count in the explanation box from 400 to 800 characters would provide ample room for students to express which streams they prefer and why.

FRI has a lot to offer to students, but not everyone in the program gets to reap the benefits of developing essential research skills in a field that caters to their interests. Optimizing the Stream Sort form would ensure that students are given a fair chance to explain exactly what they need from the program.