Matthew Wood, November 23, 2019

One of the most important goals of a college education is to prepare students for their future career endeavors, whatever they may be. There's no better way to do that than giving them hands-on experience.

A new program from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln aims to get students started even earlier in the process of actually "doing" the things they may work on in the future. The First-Year Research Experience (FYRE) pairs freshman students on Federal Work Study with professors in their potential majors to engage them in research and lab work.

The program is the brainchild of Senior Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Undergraduate Education Dr. Amy Goodburn and Director of Undergraduate Research Justina Clark. It is an extension of the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) program at UNL, which is available to students in their second year and beyond, but not freshmen.

"We already had a very active undergraduate research program for students in years two through four," Goodburn says. "We thought it would be perfect to start with a first-year program that prioritized students with work study programs. They are usually the hardest to retain, so it's really important to engage them."

This is the first year of the program, but already 45 of the 50 students that were recruited were active participants. Their studies range from agricultural sciences to brain research to arts and writing.

"We have students from every college participating," Clark says. "You might not think journalism or fine arts would have as much of an interest, but we have all of them. It's really exciting to see them in a wide variety of projects."

Part of the reason for the program is to help students make the most of the aid available to them through work study.

"We found out they don't utilize their work study awards," Clark says. "We wanted them to make sure they were aware of how to best use their financial aid package. We've really worked to promote the program. We reached out to them before they were on campus, said, 'Hey did you know you can use this?'"

The goal is to get students to stay on campus, contributing to the student experience as well as making them feel more connected to the university.

"You get so much bang for your buck to work with these students and engage them in this opportunity," Clark says.

In addition to doing weekly work with faculty mentor, students in the program have monthly meetings with Clark to talk about opportunities within their research. They take tours of different facilities on campus and go on monthly "field trips" off campus to see more about their potential fields.

 

Nathan Simms is conducting drone research as part of Nebraska's inaugural FYRE program. Nathan, a freshman in Mechanical Engineering from Bellevue, NE, receives flight instruction to fly a small drone in the NIMBUS lab from Siya Kunde, Phd. student in Computer Science. The flying is part of the Foundational interaction Research with Drones research team under Professor Brittany Duncan. September 25, 2019. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication.

"It's nice because it brings them all together. They talk about what they're doing so far. It's always cool to give students that chance because they can learn more about what others are doing and find other resources."

While Goodburn and Clark are excited about the student participation, they're even more impressed with faculty response.

"We put out a general call and we had more faculty respond than spots for students," Goodburn says. More than 60 faculty members submitted job descriptions. "We really thought we would get 25 or 30 at the most."

The hope is that the FYRE students will stay in the program, eventually moving on to UCARE after their first year at UNL. In the UCARE program, students are able to progress further with their work in the field, and even have the opportunity to give presentations about their findings.

"It's so exciting to see them and their hard work," Clark says. "When I meet these students as freshmen and sophomores, they say they want to do research. To see their growth, to be able to present their research and learn how to present their work."

The future will only get brighter for these students. And now it can start even earlier in their college careers.