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The University of Texas College of Natural Sciences Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) program has become a national model for science education. It consists of many discovery-based research courses or course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). Its goal is to get freshmen out of routine lab courses and into research experiences in which they can do actual front-line research directed by a faculty member and a Research Educator (RE). The program also provides for undergraduate student mentors, usually former members of the stream to assist in the leadership of the cohort. To date, the Astronomy program has led two very successful FRI streams over the past eight years.


The first FRI stream in Astronomy, “Exploring the Physics of the Universe with White Dwarf Stars” (http://www.as.utexas.edu/~mikemon/FRI/ast2.html), was developed and run by Don Winget and Mike Montgomery. This stream began in spring 2009 and was initially supported by the Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program (funded by the State of Texas Coordinating Board), with the Department of Astronomy providing support for student travel to McDonald Observatory. Starting in 2012, this stream became a “full” FRI stream, with CNS supporting both the RE and the student travel. Currently, this stream has undergraduates at all levels, graduate students, postdocs, research scientists, and faculty members interacting through a “layered mentoring” concept that has been refined for this stream. In this stream, students learn in the spring semester the basic concepts involved in the research, such as time series aperture photometry, basic stellar evolution (using the MESA stellar evolution code), and the Python language, and these are explored in labs. During the spring break and the following summer session, they travel to McDonald Observatory to obtain data for one of the many projects, and they begin the reduction and analysis of these data. In the following fall semester, they finish this analysis and place the data in the larger context of the ongoing research programs. Some students also do theory related projects, involving numerical modeling of stars. Still, other students work on experimental astrophysics. This involves data modeling and analysis of experimental data from work at Sandia National Labs on the Z-machine—the largest x-ray source on Earth. These experiments create stellar plasmas, or “star stuff,” in the laboratory. As appropriate, results are readied for publication.


The second Astronomy FRI stream was created in 2011 by Professor Paul Shapiro. “Cosmic Dawn” (http://www.as.utexas.edu/~gfigm/fri) was the first FRI stream in theoretical cosmology. It is the only one of its kind in the US to engage students on this frontier. The largest, fastest, massively- paralleled supercomputers in the world – including those at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center – are used to simulate these processes with gravitational N-body and numerical hydrodynamics methods, including radiation transport, and predict observable consequences of this “epoch of reionization” (EOR). Freshman members of the “Cosmic Dawn” FRI stream are taught cosmology and the gravitational dynamics of galaxy formation, in which dark matter and atomic gas collapse into lumps in gravitational equilibrium, called galactic halos, where luminous galaxies occur. They learn computer programming to analyze and visualize large-scale simulations of the Cold Dark Matter (CDM) universe, to characterize galactic halos and correlate their properties with the environment in which they form. Each spring semester, a class-wide research question is posed, with a class-wide plan to answer it. Students work in four-member teams and present their results for that semester. Summer scholars continue this. The returning fall semester class learns more about the subject and computer programming, to advance the project towards publication. Each spring semester, a new cycle begins, with new simulations to analyze and new science questions to answer.

Examples of the outcomes of the FRI streams include numerous publications, posters, and other scientific products. For example, student George Miller of the White Dwarf stream was the point-of-contact for an international team of observers looking for planets in binary systems containing white dwarf stars. George’s contribution was significant: not only did he make some of the observations at McDonald Observatory, but he reduced these (and other) data, in the process redesigning our data reduction pipeline for a new telescope (the MONET telescope) with its observing software. This work resulted in two refereed journal papers, four conference proceedings, and was the basis for his grand prize in the 2012 George H. Mitchell Student Awards for Academic Excellence ($20,000).

Furthermore, the Cosmic Dawn students have produced state-of-the-art movies and images of cosmological N-body simulations on Stallion (a wall consisting of 16x5 tiles of 30-inch Dell high-resolution monitors, a total resolution of 328 million pixels), Mustang (a "3D" stereoscopic display), and Lasso (a large, 12.4 megapixel interactive multi-touch display). These visualizations are on public display at the VisLab, and they have been used for multiple outreach presentations, including a presentation for the Astronomy Department Board of Visitors, two presentations for UT's Astronomy Student Association, three recruitment presentations for prospective Astronomy graduate students, and four presentations for the FRI High School Summer Academy.

Direct involvement in research allows the students to experience the joy and satisfaction of knowing something about the universe that no one who has ever lived has ever known before. Many go on to do a research project with someone else in the department, or other departments if their core interest is in another science discipline; a few continue as mentors in the FRI program.