This fall, public universities throughout Maine are offering courses to first- and second-year students that will allow them to engage in research and other forms of hands-on learning at the start of their college careers. 

These Research Learning Experiences are classes that challenge students across all disciplines to discover new knowledge, express their creativity and solve problems through coursework that is typically not available in their initial years of study. Previous RLEs tasked students with gathering data and samples, conducting experiments, creating art, exploring the outdoors and developing educational resources for communities.  

The University of Maine (UMaine) and its regional campus, the University of Maine at Machias, piloted RLEs for the University of Maine System (UMS) in fall 2021, during which 250 students participated in more than 30 course selections. Other public universities are now offering them in a System-wide effort to increase student success and retention. 

The RLE initiative is supported by a generous donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation as part of UMS TRANSFORMS. The Coalition for Life Transformative Education also is supporting the RLE initiative with a $50,000 grant.

“Offering these innovative, research learning opportunities in our public universities across Maine will set up more students for success in their academic careers and future employment,” says UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who also serves as vice chancellor for research and innovation for the System. “I am thrilled at the varied lineup of RLEs offered this year by our creative and dedicated faculty that will ensure our students get to know it first.”

By allowing students to discover new information and tackle challenges with their own solutions at the start of their college journeys, Maine’s public universities are showing them early on that the work they do matters, and that they can make connections as soon as they arrive on campus.  

UMaine is offering 24 distinct RLEs this fall, 21 for first-year students and three for sophomores. They include a course for nursing students about stress reduction through mindfulness, a class about understanding the chemistry behind inventing new foods, an introductory Blockchain course and a class involving a rafting trip that explores the science behind land-sea connections. 

First-year students move onto campus a week early, meet their peers and participate in a suite of activities designed to prepare them for research-oriented learning and lay the foundation for success in their first semester. Sophomores begin their RLEs at the start of the regular semester. About 400 students have signed up, including 84 students who are the first in their family to go to college. More information can be found on UMaine’s website

The University of Maine at Farmington has been offering courses similar to RLEs since 2019 through its First Year Fusion program. Courses from the program provide first-year students a variety of five-day field experiences prior to orientation, followed by an eight-week first year seminar. This year, UMF is offering nine RLEs by redesigning and augmenting seven of its First Year Fusion courses and another two traditional First Year Seminars, both of which include various high-impact activities, such as researching freshwater lakes and sustainability while visiting huts and trails; documenting the soundscapes of urban Maine in Portland and the Casco Bay area; and visiting Maine’s Cryptozoology Museum to study the complex relationships among the science, myth and culture surrounding Bigfoot. 

The university is also piloting an advanced RLE in data analysis this fall, targeted to sophomore math, computer science and mathematics education majors. Students in this Advanced RLE also will explore different pathways to careers in mathematics and math education. Currently, 95 students have signed up for the ten RLEs at UMF this fall. More information can be found at the university’s RLE website

At the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI), five RLEs will be available to first-year students during the institution’s 2022 pilot. The RLE program at UMPI includes a three-day bridge experience Aug. 24–26, just before orientation begins, as well as 15 hours of coursework that will be completed during the fall semester. Students can select from among four on-campus options — developing strategies to achieve zero hunger; evaluating relationships among energy consumption, climate change and new technologies; optimizing greenhouse production; and exploring data science programming problems — and one virtual option focused on understanding political extremism. More details are available on the university’s RLE webpage

The University of Maine at Fort Kent is also launching four RLEs this fall for first- and second-year students. The RLEs, all of which include single- or multiday bridge experiences before the semester begins, will task students with hands-on forestry coursework, designing gaming systems for the UMFK eSports team, exploring the relationships between humans and rivers while learning to navigate them, and cultivating and analyzing greenhouse plants. If all courses are filled, the RLE program and UMFK will benefit about 65 students. 

The University of Maine at Augusta is piloting its first RLE course, a BIO 110 General Biology I Laboratory RLE section, this fall, and all 20 spots for it have been filled. Students will use UMA’s Augusta campus as their living laboratory to explore the interrelationships between organisms and their environment. This RLE will start with a tailored bridge experience where students will learn about ecology and species identification while becoming scientists and creating useful data for conservation. Topics covered in the course will include biological classification, cellular metabolism in living organisms, energy and nutrient flow through an ecosystem, species interactions in a community, the importance of biodiversity, the scientific method and experimental design and analysis. Learn more on the UMA’s website

“The RLE is a unique initiative because it provides experiential learning opportunities for first-year students as they begin their college experience,” says UMaine Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost John Volin, who co-leads the RLE initiative with UMFK President and Provost Deb Hedeen. “We engage learners in authentic, hands-on research and professional practices early in their college careers. These specialized, small-group experiences open up many possibilities for knowledge creation, creative expression, and a sense of belonging. We are excited to see that last year’s pilot at UMaine and UMaine Machias is expanding in collaboration with colleagues across the University of Maine System this coming academic year. More than 500 first-year students will have the opportunity to participate in these innovative experiential courses.”