Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a $2.4 million grant to The University of Texas at Austin to expand its Freshman Research Initiative, a program that gives students the opportunity to take part in advanced research projects early in their academic careers. The grant is one of 37 that HHMI is awarding to U.S. universities today to reduce the number of students who abandon their pursuit of science and engineering degrees during college.
Each year the Freshman Research Initiative in the College of Natural Sciences offers about 800 first-year students the opportunity to earn course credit while doing original, publishable research in the sciences. Students who have participated earn higher overall grade-point averages than their peers, have a 35 percent higher graduation rate and are much more likely to continue on to graduate school (32 percent compared with 9 percent).
With this grant, the research initiative will expand to admit students who transfer in to the college from other parts of the university and from other institutions, as well as create opportunities for students to continue doing research beyond their initial two years.
"Through the Freshman Research Initiative, students develop the passion, skills and sense of community they need to persevere in getting a science degree and become a successful scientist or engineer," said Erin Dolan, director of the Texas Center for Science Discovery, which oversees the program. "We're thrilled that HHMI is endorsing our approach by giving us the resources to grow this important and effective program."
Sixty percent of undergraduates who begin college intending to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) do not complete a STEM baccalaureate degree. Among freshmen from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, the loss is 80 percent from STEM.
For all students, most of the attrition occurs during the first two years of college, when students are taking introductory courses in chemistry, math and biology. Because the introductory courses are often the only exposure to science for a vast number of undergraduates, the widespread failure of institutions to deliver engaging and effective introductory science is a problem not only for future scientists, but also for all students, regardless of their eventual career path.
HHMI is a science philanthropy based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with a mission to advance biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity.
In 2013, HHMI issued a challenge to research universities to develop effective strategies that will lead to significant and sustained improvement in the persistence in science by all students, including those who belong to groups underrepresented in science. The University of Texas at Austin is among 37 universities receiving a total of $60 million in grants in HHMI's 2014 competition.