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Recent Research: Hands-On STEM Research Experiences Game Changers for Freshmen

June 30, 2016

In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released Engage to Excel – a five point strategy to increase the STEM pipeline by an additional one million workers. To achieve this goal of one million additional STEM workers, PCAST highlighted the importance of freshman research experiences for STEM students. Several studies - published over the last two years support the claims made by PCAST regarding the success of freshman research experiences. In a study from the University of Texas-Austin, the authors found that a freshman research program improved the retention of students in STEM fields. Other studies find that participation by freshmen in research experiences provides the building blocks necessary for a career in STEM. The benefits also show similarly high rates of retention after participating in a mentored research program.

STEM research experiences increase retention of undergraduates in STEM fields by almost 25 percent, according to a scholarly article published in the June edition of CBE-Life Sciences Education. In Early Engagement in Course-Based Research Increases Graduation Rates and Completion of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Degrees, University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) researchers found that across all demographic groups students who participated in UT-Austin’s undergraduate research program – Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) – were more likely to graduate college and earn degrees in STEM disciplines than similar students whot did not participate in the FRI program. The authors, Rodenbusch et al., concluded that the FRI program helped to:

  • Increase a student's likelihood of graduating with an undergraduate degree within six years from 66 percent to 83 percent; and,
  • Increase a graduate's likelihood of earning a STEM degree from 71 percent to 94 percent.

Rodenbusch and her colleagues analyzed data from over 4,000 students who participated in the first 10 years of the FRI program. For the control group, FRI participants were compared to peers who did not participate in the FRI, but were comparable in terms of socioeconomic background, gender, race, ethnicity, and scores on standardized tests as well as other key factors. The FRI program, however, had no impact on a participating student’s GPA.

In addition to improving retention of students, research experiences also may provide freshman students with the necessary building blocks for research careers in STEM. In a March 2016 study, Staub et al. observed improvements in lab math skills and understanding experimental design and interpretation by freshman students who participated in Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program. In a similar study from 2015, Brownell et al. found that a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) had a “positive impact on the development of students’ conceptions and practice of scientific thinking.” Brownell and her colleagues contend that students who participate in the semester-long CURE program helped them better understand “how to think like a scientist” and were more “expert-like” with regard to understanding of the scientific process.

Beyond the positive impact that STEM research experiences have on students in STEM fields, similar freshman research experiences also have shown promise to improve educational outcomes of students in non-STEM majors. In a May 2015 study – Early undergraduate research experiences lead to similar learning gains for STEM and Non-STEM undergraduates – Stanford et al. observed an increase in retention and learning gains for students that participated in the Students Tackling Advanced Research (STAR) Scholars Program at Drexel University. Over 12 years, the STAR Scholars program connected over 900 freshman students with nearly 300 faculty mentors to engage in a research experience in their potential field of study. Stanford and her colleagues found that freshmen enrolled in both STEM and non-STEM majors believe that they benefited greatly from the program, developed a better understanding of academic research, and increased their likelihood of seeking an advanced degree. The researchers found:

  • Almost 48 percent of STAR Scholars in STEM fields indicated that the program increased their likelihood of working in a science laboratory;
  • 41 percent of STEM students and 27 percent of non-STEM students indicated that the program increased their likelihood of enrolling in a Ph.D. program;
  • 31 percent of STEM students and 39 percent of non-STEM students indicated that the program increased their likelihood of enrolling in a post-college master’s program; and,
  • Only 9 percent of all respondents indicated that the program decreased the likelihood that they would pursue a graduate school.

These studies highlight the positive potential impact of first-year STEM (and non-STEM) research experiences on the retention and skill development of college students that will lead to the cultivation of a STEM-educated workforce prepared to address the impending shortages highlighted in the PCAST report. As Staub and her colleagues highlighted in their study, the costs of these programs though great do have a significant impact on the students who participate. In an article for UTNews, Erin Dolan, executive director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science at UT-Austin and senior author on the UT-Austin study, concluded "This [the FRI program] is a real solution for addressing the shortfall in the STEM workforce that we anticipate for the next decade." Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a Stanford University physics and education professor, contends that every university needs to reexamine their STEM education curriculum and indicates that they should consider establishing their own freshman research experience program.


recent research, higher ed, stem