Freshman Research Initiative at UT Austin

Learning Studio at University of Texas at Austin’s Welch Hall

By Jennifer Swedell

On my first day of work for CO Architects, I headed straight to LAX and boarded a plane for Austin with Science & Technology Director Andrew Labov. Our charge was to meet with leaders from the University of Texas, Austin College of Natural Sciences (CNS) to kickoff design for the shelled labs at the Norman Hackerman Building (NHB) completed in 2009 by CO with local partner Taniguchi Architects, and Beck Construction. It was at that meeting that I first heard of a program unique to UT Austin called “The Freshman Research Initiative,” or FRI. Launched in 2005, FRI began with 45 students in three research streams. Today, the program has grown to over 800 freshmen enrolled in 26 different streams, and this innovative model has been successfully replicated at other universities across the country.

For my first day on the job, it was an exciting prospect to know that first year students were going to have a seat at the lab bench. To us at CO, this meant that the principal investigator-led research teams may be expanding and contracting more frequently based on the number of FRI participants, as well as with the ebb and flow of grant funding. The new NHB labs had to be more flexible and re-configurable then previous labs in the building. As a response, the wet labs were designed with only the sinks and fume hoods as fixed elements; the rest of the laboratory furnishings, and even some of the walls, are completely modular and movable.

Shortly after the completion of the NHB labs, the College of Natural Sciences moved forward with the renovation of the west wing of the Welch Hall Science complex. FRI was continuing to experience steady growth by the time we began design of the west wing, so instead of having a seat at the lab bench, Freshman were given the entire lab! The first floor of the west wing renovation was dedicated to the collaborative culture of the FRI program with two new labs, a 120 seat learning studio, offices, meeting space, and, most importantly, a kitchenette to keep re-fueling during marathon research shifts. The circa 1929 west wing, which once housed a machine shop and a collection of closed off small and medium sized labs, was reinvented as a platform for groundbreaking science education.

Welch Hall FRI Laboratory

But the story isn’t over yet…

Meanwhile back at the Norman Hackerman Building, the Health Informatics group outgrew their space on the first floor and had to move.  The FRI program continued its remarkable growth, so the leaders of CNS reconvened to figure out how to quickly and affordably turn the old Health Informatics suite over. Growth in biochemistry had exploded in recent years, so CNS decided upon a new biochemistry teaching lab paired with a FRI lab that would initially house the BioBricks and Microbe Hacker research streams. Beck Construction was still on site for the Welch renovation, so they were able to rapidly estimate and mobilize their team and finish the lab renovation in time for summer session.

FRI-day at UT Austin

Last FRI-day, Project Manager Antoinette Bunkley and I visited Austin for a punch of the nearly completed NHB edition of the FRI labs. The renovation punched new windows into the corridor, giving all visitors the opportunity to see this national model of science education in action. The most fulfilling moment came when BioBricks Research Educator Soo-Hyun Yang stood at the windows with a group of students to show off the new labs. The second most fulfilling moment was going to Hoover’s for their Friday trout special.

Learn more about the award-winning Freshman Research Initiative here.

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