Program to create STEM freshmen research opportunities

A new program offered by Binghamton University will have freshmen diving right into research in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program allows freshmen to start research in science and engineering at the very beginning of their college career, as opposed to their junior or senior years, giving BU STEM students an early advantage in their fields.

“We want to provide substantial numbers of undergraduates interested in a career in science and engineering with a high-quality, intensive, real research experience early in their college years,” said Nancy Stamp, a biology professor who spearheaded the campaign. “By doing that, we hope that more students will think seriously about and choose a career in science and/or engineering.”

The program, which will begin taking students in fall of 2014, engages students in three semesters of research. The first semester consists of a two-credit course in research methods and concepts, followed by two semesters of study in a “research stream.” The program will only accept students who applied early decision and are majoring in life sciences, chemistry or physics.

“Research is the lifeblood of science, so helping STEM students gain proficiency in research will help them better understand their disciplines and prepare for graduate and professional school as well as careers in industry,” said Donald Nieman, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “We also believe that the FRI will help us create models for authentic research that can be incorporated into lab experiences in gateway courses in the sciences, making them richer learning experiences for all students.”

There are three “streams” offered for fall 2014: microbiology, chemistry and neuroscience. Next cycle, administrators hope to add biogeochemisty and image and acoustic signal analysis as well as four more over the next few years.

“The first three research streams represent some of the research specialties of Binghamton University,” Stamp said. “Smart energy focuses on generating and storing energy efficiently, biofilms on microbial communities that cause problems in human health and neuroscience on degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.”

Funded by various grants and external funding, the development and progress of these programs had much to do with the initiative of the professors.

“We chose [the streams] because Binghamton University has outstanding programs in all three areas, and excellent faculty in each area were eager to participate,” Nieman said. “The FRI will allow bright freshmen to work directly with world-class researchers.”

Some upperclassmen, who would not be eligible for the program, said that they were disappointed about the missed opportunity.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t experience that, but it’s good that it’s instituted for Binghamton students in the future. It’s the same as being upset that we won’t be around for flying cars or curing cancer,” said Louis Toujague, a sophomore majoring in integrative neuroscience.

The advantage of starting earlier may appeal to both current and prospective students, attracting ambitious students to BU and also keeping them here.

“Increasingly, science education indicates that a critical window exists in the first and second years of college where those students who engage in STEM research are more likely to stay in STEM disciplines, graduate with STEM majors and not surprisingly go on to STEM-related occupations,” said Christopher Bishop, associate professor of psychology.

Using this “window of opportunity” will give FRI students an advantage over others.

“This intensive and mentored research experience will help students prepare for careers in science and engineering, especially if they are interested in interdisciplinary research on the cutting edge,” Stamp said. “They will learn how to solve very tough research problems. These students will be well-positioned for fellowships and internships, and exciting job opportunities.”

However, not everyone thought starting right away was a good idea.

“They should offer it for second-semester freshmen,” said Kristiana Engler, a freshman majoring in biology. “They need to assimilate into college life first.”