Engaging large numbers of undergraduates in authentic scientific discovery is desirable but difficult to achieve. We have developed a general model in which faculty and teaching assistants from diverse academic institutions are trained to teach a research course for first-year undergraduate students focused on bacteriophage discovery and genomics. The course is situated within a broader scientific context aimed at understanding viral diversity, such that faculty and students are collaborators with established researchers in the field. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) course has been widely implemented and has been taken by over 4,800 students at 73 institutions. We show here that this alliance-sourced model not only substantially advances the field of phage genomics but also stimulates students’ interest in science, positively influences academic achievement, and enhances persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Broad application of this model by integrating other research areas with large numbers of early-career undergraduate students has the potential to be transformative in science education and research training.