Exposing Freshmen to Research Boosts Graduation Rates

Exposing Freshmen to Research Boosts Graduation Rates

Increasing the number and quality of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates emerging from the U.S. higher education system is critical to improving American competitiveness in math and science. UT’s College of Natural Sciences is one of the largest science colleges in the nation and a major current and future source of STEM graduates. The college enrolls more than 10,000 students each year and produces 1,600 graduates in STEM fields annually, more than double the number from 12 years ago. This is a significant achievement. This doubling has far outpaced increases in the size of UT’s student body.

The doubling in STEM graduates can be attributed largely to increased investment in undergraduate research experiences through an innovative program called the Freshman Research Initiative. Rather than wait for students to arrive by various means, and often against tall odds, at a transformational research experience as upperclassmen, the FRI program identifies students with an aptitude or an interest (perhaps undiscovered) in research via an entrance survey and provides an authentic research experience early in their undergraduate career. Participating students get the full experience of independent research, from conceptualization through execution and presentation, culminating in writing and publication. Our efforts have demonstrated that a merger of research and education can benefit both the research infrastructure and undergraduate education.

Students in FRI see a marked and significant increase in participation in research and retention in STEM, particularly among underrepresented ethnicities, first-generation students, students with low socio-economic status, women, and students underprepared for college. Operating at an unprecedented scale of over 800 students per year, FRI has been overwhelmingly successful, increasing four-year graduation rates overall (42 percent for FRI students versus 29 percent in the comparison group), and more than doubling four-year graduation rates for Hispanic students.

Sarah Simmons is assistant dean of the Freshman Research Initiative.

 

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