What happens when you engage students in authentic research their first semester in college? The benefits of undergraduate research in retaining students in the STEM disciplines is well understood, but often undergraduate research is a capstone experience after students have completed relevant coursework. So, improving STEM retention through research takes place after students have already self-selected to remain in STEM. Most students leave STEM disciplines within their first two years of college, overwhelmed by what seems to be unrelated courses that support their major; however, early research experiences may provide a bridge between seemingly unrelated courses. Whittier College, a small minority serving institution and Pepperdine University, a larger institution with a smaller minority population partnered using existing first-year seminars to facilitate authentic research experiences. Working in groups, students designed and executed student-driven projects. Our goals were to introduce research experiences early enough to encourage a broader range of students to make connections between supporting courses and STEM disciplines and thus improve retention. The purpose of the partnership between Whittier and Pepperdine was to determine if this model was transferable between different institutions. Student outcomes were assessed by WestEd after the first year of a three-year NSF-funded program.
In pre and post course self-evaluation of skills, students reported statistically significant gains in designing experiments, developing and using instruments, analyzing data, and presenting results. Over 80% of students responded that engaging in research helped them identify a research question, interpret research results, understand statistical comparisons, and present results in a written scientific format. Over 70% of students said the seminar moderately or greatly enhanced learning in other courses, and 49% of students said the seminar increased their enthusiasm for STEM majors. All seminars required that students attend the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research (SCCUR), and almost 70% of students agreed that attending SCCUR made them more confident about presenting at a research conference in the future. Students also reported that seeing presentations by peer mentors increased their confidence in their own abilities. Finally 60% of students stated that they were interested in pursuing additional research during their undergraduate education. There was no significant difference between Pepperdine and Whittier students. We were pleased that in only our first year, results suggest that research in the first year contributes to retention in STEM disciplines and this is a model that can be transferred across institutions with different student populations and capacities.