College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
AGNR Research

Fueling FIRE

Unique research program partners AREC faculty with undergraduates across campus
Photo Credit: 
Ian Page

What was just an ordinary office space less than a year ago on the third floor of Symons Hall, is now abuzz with undergraduate students chatting excitedly as they pore over lines of text on a computer screen. Using a technique called web-scraping, the rising sophomores are combing through large data sets looking for information on, of all things, ovens.

The students are collecting the data for a research project being led by Sébastien Houde, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (AREC), examining how information about energy efficiency presented online may influence purchasing decisions of home appliances.

Being this involved in a faculty-led research project is an experience typically reserved for upperclassmen or graduate students. However, thanks to the University of Maryland’s new First-Year Innovation and Research Experience, better known as FIRE, these students got their feet wet in the world of research right out of the gate. 

“This is a program I wish I had when I was a freshman in college,” said Ian Page, who earned his Ph.D. from the AREC Department in the spring of 2015 and is now working as a Research Educator for FIRE.

Most first-year students are eligible to apply to the program. During the first semester, participants take a course – FIRE 120 – where they learn about basic research concepts. As they move into their second semester, they’re divided up into different subject areas, called “streams,” that match their research interests. Faculty members from the AREC Department are facilitating the “Sustainability Analytics” stream.

Twenty-three students from majors all across campus were involved with projects in the AREC-focused stream during the 2014-2015 academic year. In addition to Houde’s research, the first-years assisted Professor Lars Olson with a project examining fisheries in global markets, as well as Professor Anna Alberini on her project focused on fuel efficiency in automobiles. Seven students were selected to complete a summer fellowship through the FIRE program to continue their research.

“It’s an authentic research experience for the students and the researchers themselves benefit from more manpower,” says Page, who mentors and supervises the students in the Sustainability Analytics stream. 

“It’s kind of like running a start-up,” he says. “Real research doesn’t follow a syllabus.”

Although the students he’s working with have a diverse variety of interests – including animal science, chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering and environmental science – Page says the FIRE program has provided an opportunity for more exposure for the AREC Department, which attracts more graduate students than undergraduate.

While analyzing large sets of data on the web for hours a day might sound like a rare form of torture, the students say the software program they’re using, called R, makes it more like a game.

 “Once you find a lead, it gets really exciting. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle,” says Tori Shannon, a transfer student majoring in biological sciences. “Plus, now I have this data analysis skill that’s really important and can be used in almost any job.”

For electrical engineering major Kevin Ward, knowing his efforts will have a direct impact has made the program a valuable experience. “Whatever we do is actually going to be important to his (Houde’s) research,” said Ward, a rising sophomore. “That’s been the most exciting part.”

Students involved in the inaugural year of the FIRE program still have a third semester to complete. Meanwhile, a new class of students will begin their first semester with FIRE this fall. Roughly 30 are expected to be involved in the Sustainability Analytics stream within the AREC Department.

 

 

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