New program immerses undergraduates in real-world research and experiential learning
SSociety depends more than ever on technology and scientific discovery, but a lack of college graduates in those fields threatens to slow progress. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. President’s Office of Science and Technology, America is short more than a million workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries.
UT Arlington is changing the way students prepare for such careers by incorporating real-world research and experiential learning into classwork through a new initiative called Achieving Success through Undergraduate Research and Engagement (ASSURE).
“Data has shown that participating as an undergraduate in research ignites students’ passion for science. It increases their learning outcomes. They have better GPAs, and they graduate sooner,” says ASSURE director Ashley Purgason, assistant dean for undergraduate research and student advancement in the College of Science. “It positively impacts every end point that’s been studied.”
The College of Science launched ASSURE in fall 2014 with 24 freshman science majors, but the University’s long-term objective is to provide hands-on preparation to every freshman across all majors.
“Our goal is for each and every student to experience firsthand the wonders of discovery that come when creative talent is encouraged,” Vice President for Research Carolyn Cason says. “Research is the driver for economic development and the foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship. It creates jobs, companies, and industry growth. It brings increased adaptability to the community where those companies are developed.”
In the past, undergraduate work in research labs was limited to the most ambitious upperclassmen because it was extracurricular and time-consuming, but many students were eager to get started earlier.
“If we’re going to give them high-impact experiences, we have to do all we can to get it into the curriculum itself,” Dr. Purgason says.
ASSURE replaces the traditional freshman science labs with a Research Methods course. It’s an intensive offering in the scientific method that begins with selecting a topic, moves to a study of existing scientific literature, then provides early experiences in analyzing and interpreting data. Students in groups of three or four choose a subject, write scientific experiments, conduct research, and submit full reports.
Then the excitement really begins. Students move into the research stream for the next two semesters, working alongside faculty. The topic for the pilot program is drug discovery, an interdisciplinary study in chemistry and biology that looks for antibiotic properties in natural substances. It’s an extension of research by Kevin Schug, the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry, and biology Associate Professor Laura Mydlarz.
The pilot group chose to test ginger, pepper, the Indian cooking spice asafoetida, and some fungal species to see if any of the elemental chemicals contain undiscovered antibiotic possibilities. Their research won a top undergraduate award at UTA’s Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students.