A University of Maine student studies on campus in April. A new program meant to boost student retention will allow incoming UMaine students and returning sophomores who never knew UMaine before the pandemic to participate in a set of hands-on learning courses without paying tuition. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A new program meant to boost student retention at the University of Maine will let incoming students and returning sophomores participate in a special set of hands-on courses without having to pay tuition.

More than 600 students at UMaine and its regional campus, the University of Maine at Machias, will participate in Research Learning Experiences. The initiative is funded by a $240 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation announced last fall that is the largest gift ever made to a public education institution in New England.

A $20 million portion of that gift is meant to fund initiatives to improve retention at Maine’s public universities, where a sizable portion of students leave before completing their degrees.

The research learning program opens with a weeklong experience in late August, a week before the fall semester begins, that focuses on research learning. Students can then choose from more than 30 one-credit courses with several different focuses that they will take during the fall semester.

Many of the courses involve hands-on activities, including collecting data in the Damariscotta River, exploring the University Forest and learning about art and culture from visiting museums across Maine. The “Make Friends and Build Community” course, available only for honors students, takes place on Hurricane Island off Maine’s coast and will include students from other colleges.

Others include courses on 3D printing, designing inflatable sculptures and tracking where recreational marijuana is being grown and sold in Maine.

While the program is tuition fee, it costs $390 to enroll, a fee that covers housing and meals during the residential, weeklong program. Financial aid is available to cover that cost for qualifying students.

UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy emphasized the transformative power of hands-on research opportunities after the tumultuous effects of the pandemic. All students eligible for the program had not known UMaine before the pandemic, with incoming sophomores having started in the fall of 2020.

“Innovative research learning experiences are a great example of how we will be helping students transition successfully to college and past the disruptions of the pandemic,” she said.