Texas Research Universities Keep Students in STEM Fields with Undergrad Research Opportunities

Freshmen get their start early in research labs so they will stick with their fields.

by Marty Toohey, Austin American-Statesman / June 17, 2016 0

(TNS) —  AUSTIN, Texas — As solutions to long-standing national problems go, a spit sample might seem a little underwhelming. And yet University of Texas officials say a spit sample, and the way it was collected, offers lessons for dealing with a problem that has vexed American universities for decades.

The sample belongs to Adriana Quintanilla, a UT freshman considering a career in the medical field. Quintanilla collected it as part of a program that is developing various kinds of devices with which people can check for diseases, such as the Zika virus.

This is a rare thing for a freshman. Quintanilla's first experience with science was not, as education consultant David Goldberg calls it, the "the math-science death march": the thick textbooks, abstract concepts and boring labs that usually precede meaningful hands-on work. Experts say early hands-on work early could be the difference between students such as Quintanilla sticking with science tracks or abandoning them.

"I didn't think I would enjoy it, but I do," Quintanilla said. "I'm learning about the kind of research I didn't know we could do."

UT officials say the university's Freshman Research Initiative, which is a decade old, is now a proven approach to a national challenge. As far back as the 1980s, groups such as the National Science Board were warning the nation's universities that they were driving as much as 60 percent of budding scientists, technological innovators, engineers and mathematicians into other fields. This in turn created a dearth in important and well-paying industries.

The United States higher education system now needs to produce an additional 1 million students with degrees in STEM fields over the next decade to meet basic demand, according to a report from a panel of academics and industry leaders convened by President Barack Obama, who made that goal official U.S. policy.

Other universities are now copying UT's approach. Meanwhile, the UT program is wrestling with financial pressures felt across higher education and the question of whether, in an era of cutbacks, the university should expand it to any interested student _ a goal that would require a major infusion of funding. As they make their pitch, program officials point to a recent study concluding that enrollment in the program raises the odds of a student graduating with a STEM degree by a third.

"UT has accomplished something remarkable," said James Gates, a lead author of the national report. "The university has created an approach to solving one of our nation's most difficult problems."


Tim Riedel, now a UT professor, doesn't use the term "math-science death march." But he describes his experience at UT navigating the traditional undergraduate training in similar terms.

He was bored. He was impatient with simulating science, rather than doing it. He looked without success for community among students in the echoing lecture halls where tiny figures gave distant lessons basic enough to apply to numerous fields.

"I was miserable," Riedel said. "I was really frustrated. I changed majors four times."

UT isn't the first university to recognize that kind of frustration and use hands-on experience to try to allay it. In the 1970s, Worcester Polytechnic Institute rewrote its curriculum to emphasize practical research. In 2007, it added optional first-year projects, such as helping to cure hunger.

But that kind of approach is still rare. And it rests on a gamble. Even medical students, who have already gone through the undergraduate slog, can look forward to years more of calculus and organic chemistry before they touch a patient. The slog is partly for the benefit of the patients. It winnows down to a field largely capable of doing the work.

Can a lightly trained 18-year-old be trusted to accomplish meaningful science?

Riedel said a traditional lab setting might be useful in teaching the basics. But he said traditional labs also have pernicious qualities that work against scientific principles. Many of those classes grade students relative to one another, thus encouraging students to compete against one another, rather than collaborate, as scientists almost always do.

Riedel eventually did earn undergraduate degrees from UT, in physics and astronomy, and then a doctorate from the University of Southern California. But he said his career is due in no small part to luck: He was about to quit after knocking on 20-odd doors looking for actual research opportunities when a last-ditch attempt persuaded professor Andy Ellington to take him on. Fifteen years later, Riedel works for Ellington, overseeing more than 40 students in the Freshman Research Initiative in an unusual setup under which his mentorship role is given greater emphasis.

Several times Riedel apologizes for reaching a near-preacherlike zeal about the program. He gets to that point in part, he said, because "it's 10 years in and it's still a radical program, even though everyone considering going into science should get to have an experience like this."


Ellington chuckles when he considers the origins of the Freshman Research Initiative.

It wasn't so high-minded as some might think, Ellington said. He and several colleagues wanted a few more good minds in the labs they ran. Maybe getting a new program off the ground, Ellington reasoned, would give him first dibs.

"I want the best of the best. I want them to be researchers," said Ellington, whose lab conducts research into drugs and technology. "This was a way for some of us to have a very polite cage match for those students."

They started with 15 students. The next year, the program had already grown to 45.

Want to see if you can make a drug that helps with Alzheimer's? A professor (such as Riedel) shows a few students the basics of how to work in a lab, then lets them go at it. Usually, their experiments fail. Even so, the students receive training that makes them more appealing to people running the labs that are the key to unlocking careers in science.

"The thing that I think is worth emphasizing (with such programs) is that failing is OK," Ellington said. "Failing is part of science. And students can say, 'I failed, I didn't get an F, and I can keep doing science.'"

In a decade, the program has grown to more than 900 students. They usually start during their freshman year and continue on as sophomores, with some sticking with it as juniors or even seniors, moving into mentorship roles.

Rachel Boaz, a neuroscience major, and Szu Yu Liu, a nutrition major, heard about the program during freshman orientation. They just finished their sophomore year, surpassing the point where the demands of a STEM degree tend to become apparent and attrition skyrockets.

They work in Ellington's lab as part of the research initiative's DIY Diagnostics "stream." The lab is now working on a way to detect Zika virus. The idea is that, when finished, the lab will have modified pregnancy testers to allow people to test mosquitoes (or their own blood) for Zika. Many other labs are working on similar devices, which could be picked up by public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Boaz said that during her initial semester in the program every one of her experiments failed. She hadn't done anything wrong in a technical sense, her instructors say. But in science, a hypothesis often just doesn't work out, said Riedel, who oversees her work. Drawing the proper conclusions to form the next hypothesis is the key.

Liu said simply getting outside of the huge, impersonal classroom settings helps allay the fear of failure.

"The (traditional) labs are more focused on having you finish than how much you remember," Liu said. The Freshman Research Initiative is different, she said, "in that it helps us to be comfortable in this setting."


Gates is a renowned theoretical physicist who ties the rise of the United States' dominant economy to a step taken during the industrial revolution: requiring every child to attend school. He sees a similar transition happening today, with automation taking on a greater economic role and work increasingly moving to technology and service industries.

He sees a greater emphasis on STEM education not just as a way to produce more scientists, but one that would produce more people with "deep content mastery" who could become teachers and mentors to pass along that fluency to the broader population.

"Today the industrial basis of our society must change if we are to be successful in a period where again the rules for creation of wealth have changed yet again," Gates told the Austin American-Statesman. "STEM education must now play the role of preparing our country for this new innovation-based economy or we will lose the American Dream for future generations."

Texas A&M's College of Engineering, despite consistently ranking among the best in the country, has nonetheless suffered what its leaders consider an unacceptably high attrition rate. School officials want to increase the percentage of engineering students who stick with it from 55 percent now to 75 percent by 2025.

"We've got work to do," said Katherine Banks, dean of the engineering school. "Our retention rate concerns me a great deal."

To get that retention rate up, A&M has launched an ambitious long-term initiative for the engineering school dubbed "25 by 25."

The change already in place include capping all classes at 100 students, with most having no more than 50; encouraging students to participate in hands-on projects such as Aggie Invent, a weekend-long lab during which students work on real-world problems, such as how to create a sensor to that sends out Amber Alerts if the temperature puts a child in danger; urging students to sample several types of engineering before choosing, say, petroleum engineering; and generally classes that introduce "a concept of engineering outside the traditional boundaries."

The ultimate goal is to increase total enrollment in the engineering school from approximately 11,000 now to 25,000 in 2025 — an initiative funded partly by increasing the tuition of engineering students.

Like that of A&M, UT's approach requires money.

The Freshman Research Initiative is propped up by $500,000 in private grants that will expire over the next few years. And program enrollment is growing. There is now a 200-student waiting list for the Freshman Research Initiative. Letting those additional students in would raise the amount of money the program needs to raise in the coming year to about $1 million, according to estimates from program managers.

University officials say they are aggressively looking for funding. They have launched a campaign that included a soiree at the home of John Paul DeJoria, the businessman best known for founding Paul Mitchell and Patron Spirits. Students demonstrated how a drone works, explained research into the health of bees and analyzed water from the Colorado River for contaminants. UT President Gregory L. Fenves said he is placing an emphasis on the sort of "experiential learning" at the heart of the Freshman Research Initiative.

But program officials say there is another group of students the program is barely reaching: engineers.

The program started in UT's College of Natural Sciences. As a result, only two of the program's 29 streams are structured for engineers. Adding them would require a far larger influx of money _ after all, the Cockrell School of Engineering issues about 1,100 undergraduate diplomas a year. There are no firm estimates of how much more funding would be required for engineers, partly because officials haven't determined how many would benefit or how much engineering-specific streams would cost.

In assessing costs, backers emphasize that the average $2,500 three-semester cost per student is cheaper than the $5,000 to $10,000 cost of a standard research internship. But those officials are also clear that they are trying to raise millions of dollars, without increasing general tuition. That means securing money from the university's general fund, from private donors or from lawmakers in one of the nation's most fiscally conservative states.


Erin Dolan came to UT in 2014 from the University of Georgia to lead a new teaching initiative in the College of Natural Sciences, which includes overseeing the Freshman Research Initiative and analyzing its impacts.

Dolan's analysis of the program is bullish, but survived the peer-review process with minimal changes. It was published in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education and reaches the following conclusions:

  • The program doesn't improve students' grades.
  • But it improves by one-third the odds that an interested freshman will graduate with a STEM degree.
  • The overall results held roughly true across all demographics.

In March, 30 universities attended a three-day conference the Freshman Research Initiative hosted to demonstrate how to start up similar programs. Schools that are already establishing such programs include Iowa State University, the University of Texas-El Paso, the University of Maryland and Binghamton University in New York state.

Ellington, the professor, talks at length about the program, the possibility of expanding it even to the high school level and the financial commitment necessary for such an expansion. But after a time he stops and points to Armin Nourani — quite literally, during a tour of the lab.

Nourani, who grew up in Plano, enrolled in the program as a freshman. That experience helped him land a spot in Ellington's lab experimenting with new drugs and testing equipment. He wants to work in drug research.

"Guess that 'B' I gave you is really setting you back," Ellington quipped as Nourani laid out his goals.

Nourani smiled wryly at the observation. He graduated in May with a degree in biochemistry. He is now preparing for graduate school at Vanderbilt University.

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