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Hands-On Science in the Classroom Boosts STEM Retention Almost 25 Percent

Photonics.com
Jun 2016
AUSTIN, Texas, June 7, 2016 — A recent study found that a student’s chances of completing a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree significantly increases when he or she participates in course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs), which engage students in hands-on research at a large scale.

Research educator Tim Riedel works with a student in the University of Texas at Austin's Freshman Research Initiative on developing a diagnostic tool for malaria, Zika virus and more.
Research educator Tim Riedel works with a student in the University of Texas at Austin's Freshman Research Initiative on developing a diagnostic tool for malaria, Zika virus and more. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.

Researchers from the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science analyzed data from more than 4,000 students who participated in the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) at the University of Texas. Using propensity score-matching to control for student-level differences, the researchers tested the effect of participating in FRI on students’ probability of graduating with a STEM degree and their probability of completing a degree in six years. For students who completed all three semesters of FRI, likelihood of graduating increased from 66 to 83 percent, and likelihood of graduating with a STEM degree increased from 71 to 94 percent.

The results, which were similar across all demographic groups, indicate that potentially for every 10 students who participate in FRI, two will graduate who would have otherwise dropped out or taken longer than six years to get an undergraduate degree; and almost three more students will earn a STEM degree because they participated in the program.

FRI puts first- and second-year undergraduates in faculty-led labs where they perform discovery-based research on questions and problems of interest to the scientific community. Students choose projects from more than 25 different areas in the life sciences, physical sciences and computer science. They have the opportunity to make discoveries that are relevant to stakeholders outside the classroom and engage in troubleshooting, problem solving, and building off one another’s progress in ways that resemble the practice of STEM.

Dr. Timothy Riedel works with University of Texas at Austin undergraduate Jessica Popoola, a participant in the Freshman Research Initiative a discovery-research course that has been found to substantially improve students' likelihood of graduating, including with a STEM degree.
Dr. Timothy Riedel works with University of Texas at Austin undergraduate Jessica Popoola, a participant in the Freshman Research Initiative, a discovery-research course that has been found to substantially improve both student graduation rates in STEM and overall graduation rates. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.

"Students who participate in FRI are more likely to graduate from college and are more likely to finish a STEM major," said Erin Dolan, executive director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science. "They go on to do exciting things like graduate school, medical school, work in industry and even start their own companies."

FRI projects have included developing diagnostic tools for the Zika virus, programming autonomous robots, attempting to develop biofuels, and identifying wine varieties based on their chemical makeup. The success of the FRI program has led six universities, including three more in the UT System, to replicate the approach in which students work in teams to conduct research projects with guidance from mentors who are established scientists.

According to a 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the U.S. needs to produce approximately one million more STEM professionals during the next decade than is currently projected, yet "fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree." The report indicated that boosting retention of STEM majors to 50 percent nationwide would provide three-fourths of the needed increase in STEM workers, and suggested that improving science education with more hands-on research opportunities would be a good strategy.

"Many science educators have suspected that early exposure of undergraduates to the process of doing real science would have educational benefits," said Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a Stanford University physics and education professor, who did not participate in the study but has been a champion for improving undergraduate science nationwide. "This study provides the first good evidence, with a large and diverse population of students, that such exposure through undergraduate research has dramatic benefits for all students, substantially improving both graduation rates in STEM and overall graduation rates. Every university ought to be looking closely at these results as they think about how to improve the quality of STEM education provided to their students."

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The research was published in CBE Life Sciences Education (doi: 10.1187/cbe.16-03-0117)


This video summarizes new research showing how discovery-based research courses improve retention in STEM fields by roughly 25 percent. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.


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