First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) are designed to help first-year students make the transition to UW-Madison, both academically and socially. A FIG is a "learning community" of about 20 students with similar interests who are enrolled in a cluster of classes together. The courses in a FIG are linked by a common theme, and the faculty member teaching the main seminar course of each FIG helps students discover the interdisciplinary connections between and among the classes.
The main course in each FIG enrolls just those 20 students, which allows for study groups and opportunities for one-on-one interactions between students and faculty. The courses in each FIG are carefully chosen to create an overlapping, integrated, interdisciplinary experience. The integration of course content helps students discover how disciplines relate to one another, thus creating a richer educational experience. FIGs instructors are given funds to support classroom enrichment activities, such as field trips, guest speakers, and research.
The program has continued to expand and evolve. In 2013-14, the program offered 64 separate options enrolling 1,177 students. The program reaches out to underrepresented student populations, and as a result 29% of FIGs students are students of color, 25% are first-generation, and 20% are low-income.
On average, FIGs students are considered "academically at risk," with lower ACT scores and lower high school grade point averages and class rank. Despite these "at risk" factors, FIGs students consistently earn higher first-year GPAs than do their non-FIGs peers. For the Fall 2013 FIGs cohort, the average GPA was 3.38 compared with 3.2 for non-FIGs students; 83% of FIGs students had earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and only 2% had GPAs less than 2.0. In contrast, just 71% of the non-FIGs cohort had earned GPAs of 3.0 or higher, and 4% had earned GPAs of less than 2.0. In Fall 2013, the average GPA earned by minority students enrolled in FIGs was 3.19, compared to 3.0 semester GPA earned by minority students not enrolled in FIGs; 64% of minority students enrolled in FIGs earned GPAs of 3.0 or higher compared with 52% of their non-FIGs peers. FIGs classes are taught by faculty from every school and college.
In response to student and faculty interest, the program has greatly increased the number of "STEM" FIGs. In 2013-14, the program offered 30 "STEM FIGs," which enrolled 660 students. These options represented a wide range of majors and courses. Some FIGs were designed for students intending to pursue specific STEM-related majors, such as engineering or nursing, while others were open to students interested in exploring a broad range of science-related topics. These options included "Medical Imaging of Disease," "Global Food Security," "Social Science of Climate Change," and Forestry and Sustainable Use." One FIG," "Tropical Ecology and Conservation," included a study abroad option: in January, 11 students from this FIG traveled with their instructor to Ecuador where they participated in a two-week research program on the Amazon.