Sometimes first experiences can last a lifetime, which is why colleges and universities are raising the bar on programs that start before students begin school and continue throughout that important first year. From camping to community service, these experiential learning programs double as socializing opportunities to acclimate students to college life and to each other.
The University of Maine System (UMS) has a track record of investing in first-year experiences, many involving the state’s rural environment. The University of Maine at Farmington’s popular “Fusion Week” includes overnights spent lakeside for the class “Freshwater in the Anthropocene” or in the woods hunting Sasquatch for “Bigfoot.” These early experience courses offered throughout the UMaine System are now expanding with the launch of a student success and retention initiative called UMS TRANSFORMS. This initiative has three programs, with two of the three focused primarily on the initial two years of a student’s college experiences, given their outsize influence over a student’s college trajectory as well as their ability to serve as a key retention driver. The first program within UMS TRANSFORMS, launched at the flagship, UMaine, is called “Research Learning Experiences” (RLEs) and consists of research-based experiential learning courses that have the added value of exposing young minds to research, a domain previously reserved for more senior undergraduate and graduate students.
“We know that engaging in research makes you a part of something bigger, something important, and it allows you to form relationships with peers and professors who are in this with you,” said John Volin, executive vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at UMaine-Orono, who spearheaded the effort. “Why wouldn’t we want students to experience this right as they enter college?”
UMS TRANSFORMS is a $20 million initiative that is only a part of a much larger endeavor fueled by an extraordinary gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation aimed at reinvigorating public higher education in Maine. In October 2020, the foundation gifted $240 million to the UMaine System to be allocated over 12 years. At the time, it was the largest investment in a public institution of higher education in New England and the eighth largest in such an institution anywhere in the United States.
Investing in the retention and advancement of the next generation is particularly critical in the Pine Tree State. Today, Maine has the highest median age in the country. Between 1990 and 2019, the largest segment of the Maine population shifted from the 25- to 44-year-old to the 55- to 74-year-old age group. As of 2018, the number of residents between 16-24 and 25-34 was projected to continue declining through 2028, while the number of those 65 and over increases. The trends don’t bode well for enrollment in the public higher education system, and to make matters worse, just 54% of the dwindling high school graduates in Maine are going on to higher education afterward, whether in state or out.
The quarter billion-dollar investment stands to help ensure those students who do matriculate at UMS make it to graduation, bolstering the ranks of young professionals within Maine’s workforce. Given the early success of the RLEs in the first two years of its implementation, the initiative could make a big impact. Already by the second year, two of the universities, UMaine and UMFarmington (UMF), had 20% of their first-year students participating in an RLE.
In the fall of 2023, the other two programs in the initiative, Gateways to Success (GTS) and Pathways to Careers (PTC), will also launch. The ultimate plan is for all three to be offered throughout students’ four years and across all seven universities. Could these efforts succeed in improving outcomes for young people as well as influencing the economic fate of a state struggling to retain young citizens? And, in the process, could “creative student success” programs become the “UMaine thing”—a model for similar systems to retain and engage students for the sake of the individuals, their campuses, and the wider community?
The website for Research and Learning Experiences (RLEs) at the University of Maine is engaging and student-friendly, using active language to advertise courses like “Print in 3D and Explore Off-Shore Wind,” “Hunt for Viruses,” and “Explore What you Eat.” These subjects, and many others, are the first installments of a large, collaborative process involving the provost’s office at the flagship and faculty and leadership throughout the UMaine System.
“When we first started, for each one of these programs (RLEs, GTS, PTC) we established three very large committees of 18 or more faculty and staff from all seven universities. Since then, hundreds of people have been involved and built it together,” said Volin.
The provost’s office determined that the major reasons for students leaving college before graduation are academic success and finances, as well as social factors, including a low sense of belonging and mental health issues. To start, UMS prioritized building belonging. In 2021, faculty submitted proposals for the RLEs—small, one-credit seminars that would introduce first-year students to each other by having them do research together. While the intimate setting of the classes aims to bond classmates and their instructors, curricula focus on exploring open-ended questions geared toward less structured, college-style learning. A pre-orientation “Bridge Week,” following the model of UMF’s “Fusion week,” also immerses students in the work before the official start of the school year.
“RLEs have basically two distinct goals,” said Brian Olsen, professor of Ornithology at UMaine and executive director of UMS TRANSFORMS. “One is a wellness goal, which is a student success goal, and the other one is a preparation goal for more of a research or scholarship mindset.”
Indeed, the crux of RLEs is the personal connections they cultivate. The success of the students both socially and academically depends on “the same base relationships,” Olsen said, “because that’s just the way that humans work.” Confronting the uncertainty of making friends or working through a complicated research question require talking and turning to others for support. “All of those things come down to sitting in a strong social network, where you’re supported by your peers, you're supported by your faculty, you're supported by the staff,” Olsen added. “You know where to go when you need help. You expect to run into snags now and again. You expect that everybody in that network runs into snags now and again. And you are neither doing any worse or any better necessarily than anyone around you.”
Olsen said that the key to this level of support is the dynamic built between professor and student, which is often determined by the way in which the class is taught. “There's nothing an instructor wants more than their students to succeed, but to do that, you have to be able to understand them and empathize with them,” he said. “That takes repeated interactions, and not repeated actions while standing in front of the classroom. For really good teachers to function at their best, they have to understand the students that they're working with, and they have to be able to have conversations with them and realize, ‘Whoa, you were thinking about it like that? That’s cool.’”
Though they may not have been part of the design, students within RLEs report appreciating the pedagogical difference. Dom, a first-year student at UMaine, participated in Phage Genomics RLE, or “Phage,” this past academic year, and said it was one of the most important experiences he has had at UMaine. “Most freshman courses are these huge lecture halls, and you don’t really get to talk to anyone. But in my Phage course, there were like 15 students, and we sat at small tables, and you have a single partner for the rest of the year, and it allows you to build connections that are otherwise hard to make.”
The research component of the RLEs is a unique and added benefit, giving students who are drawn to the specific area of study offered in an RLE a leg up in their academic careers while exposing others to a field they may not have thought about. “I don't know another university in the U.S. that gives the opportunity for all students to authentically engage in the very first semester in a research project across every discipline at the university,” said Volin.
The research work students are exposed to in the RLEs provide research experience a first-year student would not otherwise get, and it also gives students agency—something that has shown to increase wellbeing. “It is a really amazing opportunity,” said Dom. “By the end of the year, you will have written two manuscripts. You'll have at least one publication, possibly two or more, and you get all sorts of experience that is so beneficial for your future. I would say 90% of the students in the class as freshmen are now working in labs. And they are not pressured to do it.”
Students are confirming that the impact of RLEs on support and belonging are their greatest strength as well on their academic mindset. Asked in surveys about the benefits of taking RLEs, students often referred to acclimating to campus and making friends during Bridge Week, or Fusion week as it's known at UMF. Compared to those who didn’t participate, students in RLEs were also more likely to report feeling supported or strongly supported by their classmates (68% of RLE students, compared to 45% of non-RLE students). Shalin, one of the first-year students at UMF who participated in the RLE “Urban Maine: The Stories and Sounds,” called the class “the biggest head-start I could get.”
One of the challenges of RLEs comes down to the opt-in nature of the program. Because the courses emphasize college-level research training, the academic intimidation factor seems to be turning some students away. Students with GPAs over 3.5 have been more likely to sign up for RLEs than those with lower scores, while those eligible for Pell Grants and first-generation students have been less likely to enroll than their counterparts. “Our preliminary data from last year really made it seem like those who have the most anxiety about college were the least likely to sign up,” Olsen said. He recognizes why students concerned about failure would be apprehensive to take on extra work, but laments that the students who might benefit most from the hands-on support aren’t getting it. “They end up then self-selecting into a very difficult social environment and academic environment because they're only doing the necessary things. Those necessary things are only the large-scale things.”
To ensure that RLEs bring together as diverse a group of students as possible, the program directors decided to test out a new marketing strategy. For incoming students this fall, half will receive the same information about RLEs published in past years, emphasizing “research,” while the other half will see new content emphasizing “connection.” The goal is to determine whether the traditional, research-forward advertising pushes prospective students away.
Starting this fall, exactly two years since RLEs first launched at UMaine, the courses will be active at all seven universities in the system, with over 1,000 seats available for students. More than two-thirds will also now earn students more than one credit. In addition, the system plans to replicate the small-class, experiential format to courses offered throughout all four years. The cumulative effect of this on retention and, by extension, on the state’s economy and workforce, will not be realized for several years. But for Volin, this is only part of the equation. In his view, what began as a way to address Maine’s retention problems has become a catalyst for a new dimension of the student experience.
“Being able to expand this approach and scale it across a system of very different institutions is pretty remarkable,” he said. “It demonstrates a deep desire for something new, something that helps students understand who they are and what they are capable of.”