New program sparks research opportunities for first-year students

Nathan Simms is conducting drone research as part of Nebraska's inaugural FYRE program. | Craig Chandler, University Communication
Nathan Simms is conducting drone research as part of Nebraska's inaugural FYRE program. | Craig Chandler, University Communication

For decades, Nebraska’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience program has prepared sophomore through senior students for their careers with hands-on learning and one-on-one faculty partnerships.

A new program in the Office of Undergraduate Research, First-Year Research Experience, is extending that opportunity to freshmen — allowing them to dive straight into their areas of interest as soon as they step foot on campus.

FYRE participants are full-time, degree-seeking freshmen at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who have also qualified for a federal work-study award. Students are paid to research under a faculty member for five hours each week throughout the fall and spring semesters. The first cohort was launched this fall, beginning with around 50 participants.

Justina Clark, director of undergraduate research at Nebraska, said the program was started due to an increase in interested first-year students and a desire to maximize learning opportunities at the university.

“More and more students I meet are already asking in their freshman year, ‘How can I start now? I want to go ahead and get involved with research,’” she said. “Being able to offer a structured program for that is awesome.

“In my mind, the biggest benefit of this program is giving kids a chance to utilize the award that they already have and do something that will really develop them.”

Along with researching, students in the FYRE program also attend monthly seminars by the Office of Undergraduate Research designed to help them succeed in their first year of classes. Optional monthly activities led by graduate students, including lab tours, field trips and industry visits, help build upon that network of support.

"In a lot of these cases, it's not just about finding an area of interest, but it's also meeting other people who share those interests," Clark said. "Fostering those relationships is really important for their retention and for their success."

It's been a whirlwind of a semester so far for Nathan Simms, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Bellevue, Nebraska, and one of FYRE's first participants. Simms entered the university with a passion for robotics and psychology and is currently combining the two in the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab.

Under assistant professor of computer science and engineering Brittany Duncan, Simms is first learning how to fly a drone inside the NIMBUS Lab. Later down the line, he will conduct research that improves user experience when it comes to drone flight.

"FYRE gives me the opportunity to be involved in research of a topic that I find interesting, and improve skills I have as well as gain new ones," Simms said. "I hope this program benefits my college career by helping me learn more than I would in a normal classroom."

Clark is looking forward to seeing the program's impact on students, both now and later down the line.

“We're really hoping that not only will this benefit the students in their undergraduate career, but also really impact their career satisfaction in the future,” she said.

Faculty members or incoming students interested in participating in FYRE during the 2020-2021 school year can contact Clark for more information at

Nebraska Today