First-year Students as Scholars Program

Project No.
PI Name
Stephen Davis
Pepperdine University

Abstract 1

First-year Students as Scholars Program

Presentation Type
Cheryl Swift, Whittier College Stephen Davis, Pepperdine University


In his book, High Impact Practices (2008), George Kuh makes the point that involving students in at least two high impact practices during their undergraduate career improves student retention and performance. Our project marries two of the high impact practices that Kuh identifies, first year seminars and authentic research.


Our project design addresses two problems in current undergraduate STEM education. Many first year students are taking Calculus, Chemistry and Biology without understanding how these disciplines compliment each other, and this project proposes to close this knowledge gap by asking the students in first year seminars to propose a research project that will require them to apply a knowledge of different STEM disciplines to answer their proposed research question. Moreover, there is a natural synergy between the transfer of knowledge (education) and scholarly research (the creation of knowledge), but most first year programs donメt engage students in this synergy. Rather, students simply consume knowledge someone else has created. Our project seeks to address this gap between consuming and creating knowledge.


We are interested in finding out if introducing authentic research in first-year seminars will improve retention in the STEM disciplines, specifically the Biological Sciences, and especially for underrepresented students. The two-part program has multiple components each designed to meet these goals. Students in first year seminars will work as teams to propose a hypothesis. Participants then design and execute an experiment to evaluate the proposed hypothesis; results of their studies are presented as oral and poster presentations. In addition to a faculty mentor, each first year seminar will include two student-mentors, with research experience, as co-instructors. Seminars culminate in the submission of a mini-grant proposal to continue research. This triggers the second component of the project. Students who are awarded mini-grants apprenticeship in a host lab in the winter and then pursue their research idea with a faculty mentor during the subsequent summer. These students then become candidates as student-mentors to the next cadre of first year-students. They also submit an abstract to present their research at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate research the subsequent fall.


We believe that this approach to the first year experience will increase retention in the STEM disciplines and improve student performance in STEM courses and enhance satisfaction with their major.

Broader Impacts

Because the majority of liberal arts institutions offer some kind of first year seminar, we believe that this model is transferable to other institutions. In order to facilitate that transfer of knowledge, we are building a �tool kit� of best practices, articles about using authentic research in teaching, syllabi and other materials that individuals interested in this approach can access. We also hope that this approach could become a model for teaching other courses in the STEM disciplines in order to bridge the gap between the transfer of knowledge and the creation of knowledge.

Unexpected Challenges

Our project is concerned with incorporating authentic research into first year seminars targeting potential biology majors. Because we are testing this model approach to teaching a first year seminar based on research by first-year students, our challenges include finding appropriate time frames for these seminars that fit into different institutional guidelines for first year seminars, forming seminar descriptions that will attract appropriate students, developing syllabi and experiences that build inexperienced studentsメ ability to formulate a research question and execute a project, and finally transferring this model between Pepperdine University, a larger institution and Whittier College a smaller Hispanic serving institution.


Related in that it describes a pilot program on a broader liberal arts scale

Carr, K.S., S.D. Davis, S. Erbes, C.M. Fulmer, L.B. Kats, and M. Umbro Teetzel. 2013. Developing first-year students as scholars. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 33:8-15.