Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2020

Freshman Research Initiative, The University of Texas at Austin

Kara Rogers, The University of Texas at Austin

The Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin gives first-year students the opportunity to participate in authentic research from the very start of their college careers. Housed in the College of Natural Sciences, FRI is a large program with 30 different CUREs, called "Research Streams," that span the disciplines in the college -- astronomy, computer science, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, mathematics, physics, and everything between. The FRI experience is two semesters, starting Spring of freshman year and continuing into Fall of sophomore year, with an option to stay in the intervening summer to continue working on their research. For Spring 2019, the FRI will provide research opportunities to more than 1000 incoming UT students.

Each Research Stream is headed by a research faculty PI at the University, whose research guides the direction of the CURE. Additionally, each stream is led by a Research Educator, a unique position at the University filled by PhD-level scientists who are experts in their field and also passionate about and committed to pedagogy and education. The Research Educator works closely with students on a day-to-day basis, supported by several undergraduate Peer Mentors who have previously completed the Stream and return to help support and guide the new cohorts of students. When students arrive on UT campus, they spend their first semester learning about FRI and visiting the different research streams, and then are sorted based on their self-selected interests into compatible Research Streams. These Streams have the flexibility to design their own curricula that best support their field and research, creating an adaptable experience that provides a variety of opportunities for students based on their disciplines and interests.

CURE Development

The FRI was created by faculty and administrators in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) at UT Austin in response to a request for proposals by the NSF Undergraduate Research Collaboratives Program. This program sought new models with the potential to: (1) expand the reach of undergraduate research to include first and second year college students, (2) broaden participation and increase diversity in the student talent pool from which the nation's future technical workforce would be drawn, and (3) enhance the research capacity, infrastructure, and culture of participating institutions. Our first submission to the NSF program in Fall 2005 was unsuccessful, but with the support of our College Dean and University Provost, FRI began as a pilot program in the Spring of 2006 with a single pilot CURE of 43 freshman students performing research and earning course credit (in chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology) under a faculty mentor. The pilot year provided proof of principle and within a year, FRI was funded by both NSF and HHMI grants, allowing the program to grow by adding more Research Streams each year. In the first three funded years we grew from 3 to 20 streams that increased the students they served from 43 to 501 freshmen. Since these initial years, the FRI has continued to grow to 30 undergraduate research streams.

There were challenges in designing our teaching approach. A key idea is identifying ways to make research parallelizable, meaning, first techniques or procedures in the stream research are identified where there is a set of related but unique applications so they all have the potential of performing authentic research while providing support for each other. For example, one approach is teach all the students some basic molecular biology techniques, and then they can all use those common techniques to study different targets (e.g., different proteins or genes). Integrating a PI's research interests into the curriculum of a freshman laboratory course is not trivial. There typically is a set of skills that need to be taught to warrant credit for the lab, and a series of experiments need to be designed that teach those skills within the context of the PI's research interests. Students need to also be taught how to maintain lab notebooks and how to experiment without a recipe. Often the scientific concepts are well past what they are learning in class, but concepts are typically easier to understand when they are experienced hands-on in a lab, and consequently our students find their lecture classes easier when topics are brought up that they have already experienced in their research stream. Students experience failure early on in the research stream, and learning resilience and persistence is an important lesson. The repetition of lab skills that is required in research where experiments are more likely to fail, and replicates are always necessary, leads to skill permanence, which is not typically experienced in an undergraduate lab.

The FRI leveraged existing lower and upper division lab course requirements to create new FRI CURE sections of these courses. Both freshman chemistry and freshman biology laboratories, traditionally "cookbook" courses, were recreated as FRI CURE lab courses where the required content and techniques were still taught, but in the context of the research question of each particular research lab. This same principle was repeated across the various scientific disciplines (physics, computer science, astronomy, etc.), ensuring that all FRI CURES provide course credit and satisfy degree requirements for those majors.

When the University introduced the core curriculum requirement of a series of "skills & experience" based courses, the FRI program quickly embraced these requirements and demonstrated how many of these requirements, such as independent inquiry, quantitative reasoning, and core writing skills, could be taught in the context of research. Courses that fulfill a substantial amount of these key skills retain "Flags" (e.g. "Writing Flag", "Independent Inquiry Flag", etc), and students are required to take a certain number of each. Many FRI streams have applied for and received Flag designations, providing another mechanism to provide course credit value for their FRI experience.

Our original FRI plan was to build in stream assessment, to make decisions to shut down streams where necessary. To date, efforts to codify this process have never been implemented. Streams have closed due to natural processes - professors move or retire, they may choose to use the exit of a research educator to wind down their stream as their attention and interest moves away from the research being done. Some streams have evolved with time, either being taken over by a different PI, or staying with the same PI but moving their research interests as the PI's interests progresses. Now more than 15 years into the program, one of our key goals for sustainability is putting into place more clear and consistent policies for these types of assessment processes.

Barriers and Challenges

  • Sustainability. Reliance on grant funding put the program in a precarious place when the funding has ended, as those funds were not easily replaced. This has been addressed by a multi-year sustainability plan which has focused on increasing resources from 3 key areas: college support (partially achieved), increased faculty buy-in through grant support of streams (proposed, but difficult to implement), and increased development through both donors and industry partnerships (partially achieved).
  • Growing too quickly. As one of the first sites to implement undergraduate research-based education at a large scale, innovation was prioritized over uniform approaches. This has been a strength of the program while we have been growing and well-funded, but now presents challenges in that there are many different types of streams and ways to support them. The administrative burden for supporting these disparate efforts is immense and creates issues for the program.
  • Getting administrative support in the face of entrenched interests. This is related to the above problem of growing too quickly, as well as the age of the program. Many approaches and structures in place are now not easily changed, and navigating the interests of the administration and those in the program has been difficult.
  • The creation of the Research Educator position. We knew it was a new type of position critical to our model, and it has evolved over time with a variety of different appointments. This position is currently a non-tenure-track teaching position, but the requirements and promotion pathway have not been made totally clear across campus. This better supports the interests of the individuals in this position, but there are still many issues remaining.
  • The program exists at the college level, outside of any one department. While this can be a benefit in allowing for flexibility and approaches that support students in many fields, this has also created a challenge of integration into the campus. In some ways, the FRI program feels very separate from the departments whose students participate. There are many stakeholders with different views, and clearly communicating the role of the program and its goals while also integrating into the larger picture of undergraduate education in the college has been challenging. Having strong faculty advocates in departments and the Dean's office has been key to addressing these issues, but many are unresolved.
  • The amount of data and the time needed to track and process it was completely underestimated initially. Ten years ago we felt we had more more data than we could ever hope to analyze. The program uncovered and highlighted the inadequacy of the college's data management system. We now have full time people working on assessment and data management, but are still not on top of this task as there are many things we still wish to track and have not done so yet.
  • We need to engage with our alumni. This is part of our sustainability and data collection. There is so much potential to be harnessed with over 8000 alumni now.

Our most visible gains have been in student success. As noted in several publications coming from our program, participation in the UT FRI program has resulted in higher graduation rates for students in the College of Natural Sciences, retention of our students within STEM, continuance to graduate and professional schools and careers in STEM fields, and increased earning potential in these fields (Rodenbusch, et al. 2016, Walcott et al, 2018). These outcomes have been important in justifying the resources for the program, but also now are central to the student experience in our College.

Over time, we have observed significant gains in student learning and changes in student attitude after participating in FRI. We now have integrated questions about these outcomes as central research questions for our program, and routinely survey and track students to assess things like (1) student career clarity (2) sense of community (3) sense of mentorship (4) sense of identity and belonging, and (5) opportunity to use science-related skills/21st Century Essential Skills. While these data are still being analyzed, we have evidence to support the FRI experience creates significant gains in each of these metrics.

We have had a more significant challenge in quantifying the research output to the program. Some metrics are easy to follow, such as publications, conference talks and posters, and follow-on grant funding. However, we know that much of the research going on in the streams is useful but does not necessarily warrant a full publication. One ongoing priority for the program is to identify key metrics for research productivity, for which we have collected compiled information from each stream that we are working on coding for future evaluation.

The FRI currently has 375 citations which can be broken down in several ways. There are 204 peer-reviewed publications and 171 external oral or poster presentations at conferences, workshops, and symposia. The majority of these citation (321) are scientific research and 54 are education research. We have 484 undergraduates co-authors, many of whom have multiple citations. In addition to the significant impact this has on the individual students who have a powerful addition to their resume, this also represents significant scientific research advances that would not have been made without our undergraduate researchers.

We have sponsored a biennial conference aimed at dissemination of our program, which has helped support development of FRI-like programs in 5 colleges across the country. We are always in talks with partner universities sharing resources and advice, and as a result are working on creating a repository of both program and curricular support materials to help prospective sites develop their own similar programs or replicate some of our features in-house.


The FRI program was created in response to a call for proposals from the NSF. This Undergraduate Research Collaboratives program was explicitly set up so there was no possibility of repeated funding through this program, and thus required a sustainability plan from the beginning. Mary Ann Rankin (CNS Dean who was actively involved in developing the proposal) and Sheldon Ekland-Olson (Provost) were involved from the beginning and were committed both monetarily and administratively as well as intellectually buying-in to the program. When our initial proposal was not funded, they immediately provided initial funds to renovate a lab space, purchase equipment, and fund a teaching position to create our pilot program, that in turn was leveraged to obtain external funding. FRI has been supported by substantial grants from NSF (CHE #0629136) and HHMI (#52005907, #52006958). Sources of funding from companies and alumni donors is actively pursued by both our program and the Development groups of both the college and the University. Individual FRI CUREs have sought and obtained support from a number of companies and individuals with interests in the specific research lab directions. One interesting support story is for the Supramolecular Sensors stream, led by Professor Eric Anslyn, whose popular science article in a wine enthusiast magazine about their method to identify wine varietals using an array of indicator-displacement sensors to detect the tannins in wine, attracted the attention of a lawyer who ended up directing funds to the stream from a class action lawsuit based on fraudulent mis-labeling of bulk wine supplies.

Over the past 15 years, funding has been sustained by university/college resources in addition to several large grants (HHMI, Keck, NSF). These large grants have all come to an end in the last few years, which has required a significant corresponding investment by the College to sustain the efforts by the FRI. This contribution has taken the form of a couple key pieces. First, CNS pays for a significant portion of the salary of every Research Educator as part of the instructional budget allocated to teaching courses. Additionally, the college has committed to recurring monies to support both the materials and supplies needed to run the research group as well as funds to support administrative effort by the Research Educators to support program operations. Overall, these college contributions account for approximately 75% of the operating budget of the FRI. Additional funds are brought in through grant support from FRI-affiliated PIs to support the research or educational efforts of their Research Educators and streams, philanthropic donations, and industry partnerships to sponsor streams. The FRI program also runs a tuition-based high school summer program which helps to generate revenue for summer support for the research streams.

Stakeholder Buy-In

Initially, we believed that the biggest obstacle to large-scale student participation in research was the lack of availability of positions, so that if we provided research opportunities, students would sign up. The initial FRI pilot group was filled by self-selected students, which resulted in a distribution of students that highlighted the issues with the risk groups of our college. Other retention efforts in our college prior to the creation of FRI had identified five risk groups of students, least likely to be retained in STEM majors. Some were obvious, e.g., underrepresented minorities, and women in majors such as math, physics, astronomy, and computer science. But others had been under the radar, such as first-generation students and low socioeconomic students, and the fifth group, low SAT, was a result of the Texas State Legislature's ruling admitting the top 10% of students from all Texas high schools into a state university. The low SAT group were the lowest performing, with less than 30% being retained over a six year period after entering a stem major. Of the 43 pilot students, only 23% were from one or more of our identified at-risk groups, whereas 63% of that incoming year of STEM freshmen were identified as at-risk. It was clear that if we wanted to serve and encourage at-risk populations, we could not rely on self-identification of research interest.

Over time we uncovered various barriers to participation and addressed them in our recruiting process. Students were originally recruited during summer orientation before the start of their Freshman year through talks covering an introduction to the program. For example, many incoming freshmen didn't know what research was or how it would benefit them to participate, and so they would not attend information sessions or apply for the program. We instead created a series of questions in our orientation survey asking process questions – whether they liked to build, repair, invent, and/or prove – and used these questions to help target recruiting, offering positions in the program specifically to at-risk students whose answers to these questions indicated an innate interest. We have modified our orientation talks to address how research would benefit their career path. Helping students understand the benefits of our program armed them to explain the program to their parents. This was important because family and cultural barriers often resulted in the student's support structure not understanding the benefits of our program and insisting that their student's not "waste their time" taking courses that weren't aimed at their ultimate career. Within a few years, our modified recruiting strategy was able to successfully attract the traditionally under-represented at-risk groups of the student body. At orientation, students were enrolled in a first-semester Research Methods course which prepared them for participation in the FRI stream in the following semester. Additionally, FRI representatives traveled to Texas high schools, particularly those with large populations of at-risk students, to advertise the program, and teachers at these schools were able to recommend particular students for seats in the program.

The program has grown substantially since the beginning, requiring corresponding changes in recruitment methods. The FRI program is now application-based and open to all students. Upon acceptance, all student admits to the College of Natural Sciences receive information about the program and have the opportunity to apply. Additionally, students are also recruited through partnerships in other programs in our College, including Honors and other student support communities targeted toward at-risk groups. Students who are members of these partner programs have reserved seats in the FRI. There is high demand for the program. Currently, we have a waitlist of ~350 students.

We hoped students would choose to participate in this program after we convinced them how good it would be for them. There were a couple of intentional principles that have prevailed over the years:

  • Course credit is a requirement, not an added benefit. FRI courses must count toward student degree plans. In this way, performing research was incentivized, not merely extracurricular or volunteer. When research experiences are not incentivized with course credit and degree requirements, they attract a self-selecting group of students who otherwise had the wherewithal to seek out a research opportunity. This excludes students from at-risk groups. We do not want students to be penalized for joining our program by creating the need to take more courses than already required by their major. FRI CUREs offer lower-division lab credit in the first semester, satisfying degree requirements across the disciplines in CNS. Generally, students receive "research" course credit for the second semester. These course credit options (including receiving a second lower division lab credit for the second semester, providing "flags" that support core requirements, etc.) have been intentionally expanded over the years to increase retention and buy-in, as well as support students equally, regardless of their major. This requires coordination with several departments on campus to ensure curricular alignment with the FRI streams.
  • There should not be a penalty for trying these new/different/more difficult classes. This addresses the concern of students and their parents, that this is not something to take on at the start of an already difficult transition to college. To prevent this, we use criterion-based, rather than norm-based assessment. FRI student grades are not curved and they are not competing against each other for high grades. Students come to us with a wide variety of previous experience and should be challenged and encouraged to grow, not to compete with other students. By basing grades on submitting all assignments, adhering to guidelines, and emphasizing effort, resilience, and creativity while providing subjective constructive feedback and encouragement, we take concerns over grades off the table so they can concentrate on the experience.

Beyond course credit, student buy-in has been achieved by fostering a sense of community and belonging in the FRI labs. Over time, these supportive, inclusive learning communities within FRI grew stronger and became a defining feature of the program.

Initially, some of the creators of the FRI were faculty members who lead the first FRI CUREs. Their buy-in was inherent to their desire to change the culture of undergraduate education in CNS by bringing research to the curriculum. In the early days, other than the few faculty who were involved in the original planning and had already fully bought-in, we needed incentives to encourage other PIs to take on research streams. We offered a number of incentives to faculty, including teaching relief (teach the FRI course as part of their required teaching), a funded postdoc (the Research Educator), and/or funding to set up a stream lab based on their research, meaning they could get extra equipment supporting their research, as well as large number of students working on topics of interest to their research. Students working on research was not, initially, seen as a benefit by most faculty who did not believe the freshmen could achieve anything of use. However, as the success of our program grew, faculty started to realize how a FRI stream could benefit them. Faculty realized that a FRI stream provided excellent ways to highlight the Broader Impacts of their research when writing NSF proposals. NSF equipment grants could be enhanced by proposing equipment that could be used by undergraduate researchers. Additionally, faculty have had success by using the FRI streams to conduct projects that the PI would be unable to or averse to tackle, such as high-risk projects, "fishing expeditions" and/or projects requiring lots of "hands."

Another incentive for PIs is that all or most of the teaching of the CURE, mentoring of undergraduates, supervision of undergraduate research projects and management of the lab is the responsibility of the Research Educator, freeing the PI to focus on their lab and courses. As research started to succeed and papers started to be published, we no longer needed to actively recruit faculty. Additionally, as awareness of these research incentives grew, the teaching relief option was no longer necessary and eventually removed. We now keep a waiting list of faculty hoping to start a stream. In addition, it is now a requirement PI's supply some percentage of the stream funding for their application to have a stream to be considered.

Like with faculty buy-in, some CNS administrators were on the ground floor of the creation of FRI, were on board with the idea of bold innovation of undergrad STEM education, and thus were inherently motivated to respond to the calls to improve in this area in this way. This willingness on the part of CNS administrators and faculty to pursue radical change to undergrad STEM education was instrumental to the creation of the FRI. This administrative support paved the way to subsequent grant writing efforts to fund the FRI model (including some reforms to the undergrad curriculum).

FRI has also grown in its role as a service course in providing intro lab capacity, increasing buy-in and importance to both departments and the College. At the time FRI was created intro lab courses in BIO and CHEM were overloaded to the point of backlog. Additional capacity provided by FRI allowed for sufficient capacity to meet demand.

Sustaining Change

Buy-in from the college and university from the beginning was critical. Our program was championed by a series of Deans, and was soon regularly highlighted by the University President as a drawcard for the University. Once primary research papers were published, we saw more faculty buy-in as this showed the viability of our proposal that freshmen researchers were able to contribute to the scientific endeavor. Our initial thought was that Research Educators would merely be postdoctoral scientists who would be attracted to the unusual combination of research, education, and lab administration, but would be largely itinerant and move on to their own pursuit of academic advancement. This does describe some of our research educators, and a number of them have found that working in our program has provided excellent training for tenure-track academic positions, particularly in smaller research institutions as their FRI experience has shown them how to pursue research year-round using undergraduate students in courses counting towards their major. The vast majority of Research Educators are committed to our program and have chosen to stay and make this their career. The college has recently renamed its non-tenure track faculty as Professors of Instruction or Professors of Practice, and this change in title has given our Research Educators a more appropriate designation.

Tipping points in sustainability are related to college/university buy-in (see above). Several Deans have committed substantial resources to the program, which has institutionalized the program and made it central to the functions of the College of Natural Sciences.

The success of the program has enabled almost continual, large-scale grant support since the beginning of the program. Now after over 15 years, grant support to sustain the existing program has been harder to secure. More recently, the ending of several large grants provided an additional incentive to institutionalize. The College stepped forward to commit additional recurring funds to the program which covers almost 75% of the operating costs for the program, as well as prioritizing development and philanthropic efforts toward the FRI. While not fully sustainable, we are currently working to further institutionalize the program without a need for grant-funded assistance. One current area we are expanding is creating industry partnerships. In 2019, we have our first industry-sponsored stream: ConocoPhillips has contributed 3-years of full Research Stream support to start a data analytics research stream for energy applications. This partnerships allows the company to share research goals and data with students in a productive collaboration, and also trains students in a particular field that will prepare them for internships and careers with the company.

Faculty buy-in comes in two flavors. Buy-in from the tenure track faculty has been sustained by the continued value to some faculty of the FRI in providing resources and students to do research that can either not be funded by them, is outside the scope of their research, or is too risky to be assigned to graduate students or post-docs. Many PIs also leverage their interaction with FRI as a grant-funding opportunity, using the educational aspects as "Broader Impacts" in proposals.

In some cases, the stream has been sustained by replacing faculty sponsors for whom FRI has outlived its usefulness with new faculty stream sponsors. This typically results in a change in research focus that better aligns with the new PI's research goals, but this constant cycle helps to ensure the stream does not become stagnant over time.

Faculty buy-in from Research Educators has been obtained by recruiting scientists who value research and teaching equally, and by encouraging creativity and providing a community that fosters innovation. Over time, this developed by moving these Research Educators from staff roles to non-tenure-track teaching faculty roles with a pathway for promotion.

Two other aspects have been key to sustaining the CURE. First, the presence of administrative support that is global to the individual research units within the CURE has provided structure and stability through leadership and staffing changes and the creation and sunsetting of research foci.

The second key aspect is the tiered approach to staffing the CURE that mimics the staffing of a traditional research group using the tenure track faculty PI, overseeing a post-doctoral scientist (Research Educator) who is assisted by experienced undergraduates who carry with them some of the knowledge essential to that line of investigation. The Researcher Educator role is critical to the functioning of the CURE, as this individual not only sets research goals and priorities with the PI, but also does the instruction and daily mentoring of students. This individual provides continuity and context for the students and helps execute a long-term vision for the research that extends beyond a single semester or academic year. This role is critical and helps overcome the barrier faced by many PIs in terms of bandwidth in working with such a large cohort of students. New Research Educators for the CUREs are paired with veterans within their discipline. Because much of the CURE format is discipline-specific, we've found that this helps give new instructional faculty the specific help they need as well as a point-person to reach out to for all concerns. In the ideal case, the "mentor" and "mentee" have CUREs that share a physical lab space, which helps to ease the "start-up" phase of a new CURE. Additionally, our research streams operate under a Peer Mentor model, where students who have completed the research stream return to the program to serve as peer instructors for one or more semesters. This has been key to scaling up one-on-one research interactions with our large CURE cohorts, in that peer mentors who have already experienced the stream and are familiar with the techniques are able to step in and do much of the instruction and advising for early students. These continuing students perhaps see the most gains of any in the FRI program.

In instances where there are changes in either the PI or Research Educator, the codification of the curriculum used by the research group serves as a tool for maintaining continuity. Undergraduate peer mentors also provide a crucial role in developing the curriculum, so much so that during personnel changes, it's common for the continuing students to orient the new faculty to the details of the research and its status. In some personnel changes, the stream can also change research focus to match the new personnel or can be sunsetted and new ones brought in its place. We have had 43 CUREs in our program to date, with 30 currently in operation. This exchange of topics serves a function of keeping research cutting-edge, novel, and fresh.

The leadership of the CURE has shifted between individuals over time. The loss of continuity has presented challenges in maintaining the institutional knowledge that is an inherent part of running the program. Sharing of responsibility and knowledge amongst a large and diverse leadership group has provided critical mass that allowed the FRI program to continue. Much of the leadership of the program has developed from within the ranks, where Research Educators take on administrative roles/leadership duties or positions as Directors/Assistant Directors. For such a large program, this distribution of institutional knowledge has allowed for continuity over the years without significant disruption to student experience when there is a change in leadership.

The FRI program is an integral part of the experience of the CNS freshmen at UT. Each year, more than 40% of the incoming class participate in FRI. Participation is so valuable and high that many faculty rely on FRI experience as a prerequisite for joining their research labs later on in students' careers. The amazing impact the program has on students has led to an initiative to provide experiential learning opportunities for all students in the College, which is a new effort being developed over the last two years. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the FRI would ever disappear or be wound-down due to a change in personnel. Our current goals are less centered around growing the program or creating new efforts, but rather reevaluating where we are presently and identifying ways to improve and better serve students and their career goals.

Advice for Implementation

I wish we had been more proactive in evaluating the progress and success of certain types of stream models. As the program grew, it grew in many different directions to support the innovative nature of the effort -- no one really knew how this was going to work and at scale, so there was a lot of flexibility built in to let different streams experiment with different ways of approaching the challenge. Now 15 years in, the program is very large and represents several types of research structures, administrative structures, and funding structures. This obviously presents challenges when making programmatic decisions or when bringing on new research streams. Having a structured process for both stream/CURE evaluation would have helped provide clarity to this, as well as having a program evaluation and clear goals for an Advisory Board to direct the growth of the program.

Set clear goals and methods for evaluation and assessment. These are key both to managing priorities (when sustainability is a looming question) and to demonstrating the value and efficacy of the program. Our key contributions to student retention in STEM and improving graduation rates in the college have created a strong value proposition, which has created enthusiasm and strong institutional support!