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Learning by doing

Having freshmen perform research doesn’t just improve undergraduate learning. It convinces more students to become science majors.

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Sarah Simmons is director of the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) in the College of Natural Sciences. FRI is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation.

Imagine the impact on the arts if we required every aspiring instrumentalist to complete 12 years of theory and careful study of the masters before being allowed to pick up an instrument and play.

Yet somehow we’ve come to think that a critical mass of facts and concepts must be absorbed before the human brain is able to do science. It has become the norm that science and the related disciplines of technology, engineering, and math (STEM) require students to complete years of lecture-based coursework with only a weekly stint in the lab before allowing them to actually practice science the way scientists do.

[And] we continue to lament that only small numbers of students survive and thrive in the STEM pipeline. In fact, the majority of students who enter college with an interest in science do not complete a science degree.

Our ability to respond to some of the most critical challenges of the near future global health, climate change, energy depends on our ability to fully tap the intellect, passion, and creativity of the next generation of scientists and engineers. Researchers have always successfully apprenticed budding scientists in their labs, and inquiry-based learning, research-based courses, and undergraduate research have nurtured the flame of interest students bring with them when they enter college.

Decades of data show that this kind of engagement improves student retention, levels the playing field for students with varied backgrounds, and improves the quality of scientists produced.

Students engaged in research

FRI student consults with Dr. Anne Tibbetts. 

However, such traditional models of engagement affect far too few students; the interaction occurs too late to change a student’s career trajectory; and the opportunity may simply not be available at some institutions.

The challenge, highlighted in a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report on undergraduate education scheduled for release this month, is to substantially expand opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research.

A number of new initiatives are testing models for engaging large numbers of students in authentic research experiences as part of their education. These programs are happening in a number of different scientific disciplines and across a range of institution types. The models individually and collectively challenge the notion that authentic research experiences can only be had when individual students are mentored by individual researchers, providing evidence that large numbers of students can benefit from these kinds of experiences.

Curricula can incorporate research

Many institutions have degree plans that build course upon course, reflecting a stepwise approach to understanding the field; but too often, students withdraw mid-sequence. This has been attributed variously to lack of true interest on the students’ part or to the rigor of the courses. But institutions that have made room in the curriculum to add “real research” see an increase in student participation rather than a decrease.

“It offers the advantage of relevance and interest, two things sorely lacking in most of our courses.”
Biochemist Andy Ellington, Freshman Research Initiative mentor since 2006

At UCLA, molecular biologist Utpal Banerjee has developed a research course that allows freshmen to participate in functional genomics research in Drosophila. The goal, Banerjee says, is for each student to experience at least one “discovery moment” that is, to learn firsthand how science is really done. Of the more than 600 students who have taken the course, more than half have pursued additional undergraduate research opportunities.

Yale University biochemist Scott Strobel, who runs the Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course for undergraduates, agrees. The key motivating factor, says Strobel, is the opportunity for students to intellectually engage in their project to a sufficient level for them to “own it.”

It can be done at scale

The “numbers” issue is a major challenge that has been directly addressed by several programs. This is particularly important for institutions that serve thousands of potential scientists but have limited availability for one-on-one research mentoring. The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) at The University of Texas at Austin, which I run, provides authentic research experiences to more than 25 percent of each incoming class of prospective science majorsclose to 600 students each year.

Students participate in a three-semester course sequence, integrated into their degree, that involves them in faculty-led research projects in a range of scientific disciplines. Integrating the research into the curriculum, rather than requiring that research be extracurricular, plays a major role in opening access to a more diverse group of students.

More than 70 percent of FRI participants are from underrepresented backgrounds, and the positive impact is clear: FRI more than doubles the graduation rate for Hispanic students and, overall, 35 percent more students graduate with a science or math degree.

Institutions can share resources

Several programs have shown that cross-institution collaboration can help bring research experiences to institutions that are not research-intensive or where faculty lack the time necessary to apprentice more than a handful of students.

FRI student consults with Dr. Anne Tibbetts

FRI student consults with Dr. Anne Tibbetts. 

The Genomics Education Partnership, brainchild of Washington University biochemist Sarah Elgin, provides undergraduates an opportunity to participate in a collaborative genome annotation project. Because the research is largely computer-based, costs are low and participation is available to students at institutions with limited research facilities. To date, more than 2,500 students from more than 80 diverse institutions have annotated more than 4 million bases of sequence data.

Similarly, through the PHIRE program at the University of Pittsburgh undergraduates discover novel mycobacteriophages under the direction of lead scientist Graham Hatfull. Through the HHMI Science Education Alliance, more than a thousand undergraduates at 70 institutions have become “phage hunters,” already contributing 95 new phage genomes to Genbank.

Research and teaching are compatible

These programs work to ensure that the research and teaching missions of the institutions involved are merged to the benefit of both. They engage the passion and expertise of faculty, reinvigorating their own commitment to their fields.

The result is increased research capacity, new project ideas, and the generation of real data. FRI research has resulted in more than 130 published papers. Several hundred UCLA students have coauthored papers with Banerjee.

It’s affordable

Once established, the cost of these programs can be comparable to traditional lab course sequences. Often, these integrated courses are less expensive, per student, than traditional undergraduate research experiences.

Student engaged in research


Programs such as Elgin’s and Hatfull’s leverage capacity at the lead investigator’s home institution to provide authentic research experiences at a cost of $200300 per student a cost that will continue to drop as new innovations appear.

Data from each of these programs continues to underscore the benefits of these types of learning environments over traditional labs: students perform better in upper-division course work in science, have higher confidence in themselves as scientists, and report increased interest in STEM careers, among other benefits.

It is vital that we prepare our future scientists and leaders to participate in the vibrant orchestra that is the 21st-century scientific enterprise. Universities are increasingly challenged to find innovative ways to integrate authentic research opportunities for students into the fabric of the institution.

Despite historical challenges, programs like these are answering the call and training more students at a time when advances in emerging areas such as nanotechnology, informatics, and imaging technologies have converged to create a compelling “moment” in science.

There may be no better opportunity to change the way we teach science and engage the curiosity of the next generation. We should not miss our cue.

This essay was originally published in The Scientist on Feb. 1, 2012. Copyright The Scientist. Reprinted with permission.